Front Lines: Women And War

In my family, women have gone to war for generations. So when I signed up to cover what now seems like an inevitable war with Iraq, my decision did not meet with protest or worry, but, rather, stories.

My Great Aunt Jane Ames was what they called a "Donut Dolly" during World War II. The dollies worked for the American Red Cross. They drove "clubmobiles"--usually old double-clutch GM trucks--to within about a mile of the fighting. There, they offered weary soldiers coffee and donuts, which they would get up at 4 a.m. to make. Before she died, Jane recorded her own life history in a short typewritten memoir. About her experience in a "mobile canteen unit" in Port Moresby, New Guinea, she wrote: "Sometimes we had Coke and other drinks," she wrote. "But, not infrequently, we had to prepare drinks with Jell-O and hope it wouldn't jell before we were able to serve it."

Mostly the dollies offered a smile and conversation. They had to be at least 25 years old and college educated to get the job. Many had been Girl Scouts or had some experience roughing it. Jane believes she got hired because she had started a bowling league in New York City. They figured she knew how to organize. Before she knew it she'd been issued a gas mask and a helmet (which doubled as a sink for hairwashing in the field) and boarded the U.S. Transport Klipfontein in San Francisco for the 18-day journey to the South Pacific. "One misery I can recall was showering in salt water--STICKY!!!" she wrote. "The holds were filled with soldiers. When it rained we were confined to quarters so they could shower in that nice fresh rain water."

Fun-loving and energetic, Jane was a perfect choice to boost the soldiers' morale. She was also adventurous. Her temerity would last all her life as she traveled the globe into old age. "As we were given more personnel and scrounged more jeeps, we began serving ground crews at their rivetments," Jane wrote. "These were plane parking spaces protected by semicircular piles of dirt to protect planes from flying shrapnel in case of a bombing attack by the Japanese." It was 1943.

Twenty-four years later, my Aunt Nancy Bracken was heading to Vietnam to work for the American Red Cross. They called it the "Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas" program by then. The "Red Cross girls" put on recreational programs for the troops, visited medical-evacuation hospitals and served lots of meals. On July 24, 1967, the day she landed in Ben Hoa airport, she wrote this in her diary: "Reality hit home quickly. The pilot instructed us to exit the plane as quickly as possible. They were experiencing some local ground fire."

Rather than travel by jeep like Jane, Nancy flew everywhere by helicopter--and loved it. (She even married a chopper pilot she met in Vietnam.) "We were way above the terrain," she wrote, "and I sat on the outside seat--the doors wide open. You can put your feet out in midair." Bravery runs in the family, at least so far. At Phu Loi, her first base some 60 miles north of Saigon, there were three women to 10,000 soldiers. They had a concrete and screen billet and the shower doubled as a bunker in the event of incoming rocket and mortar fire. "Going to bed each night with the sounds and vibrations of rocket and mortar fire close at hand is nothing I would wish on anyone," she wrote later.

From Phu Loi, she would chopper to places like Long Binh to visit soldiers in the 93rd Evacuation Hospital. On Sept. 26, 1967, she wrote: "It was hard--first time I've come close to losing my composure on the job. Some of the fellows were in really bad shape. The ravages to limbs were hard to believe, and bandaged faces made you question what shape these young men would be in when their tours were complete." But like Jane, Nancy was a soldier of morale. I never really understood where her unflappable cool came from until I read her diary. "I feel strongly that we should let the fellows know that we are behind all their effort over here," Nancy wrote after yet another hospital visit. "No matter how tired or depressed I may become, a smile will always do both me and some GI some good." It was 1968.

Thirty-four years later, I was at Fort Benning, Ga.--Home of the Infantry--getting media training to cover a possible war with Iraq. Like my aunts, I can't seem to sit and watch others go to war. Like them, I am drawn to the Army, the soldiers on the front lines. I want to listen to their stories the way Jane and Nancy did. And, in my case, retell them. Hopefully with as much grace as the women who went before me. "These guys are giving their lives that others might be free," Nancy wrote in her diary on April 15, 1968. "I only hope and pray that there are many back home that recognize the tragedy of this war."