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It Was a Woman’s Job, Too

REPOST ARTICLE SOURCE: http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=2666

Covering the Vietnam War was a rite of passage for a generation of journalists, and this book dramatically details the tenacity, sacrifice and courage of nine women reporters unwilling to squander their big chance at it.

Jurate Kazickas, for example, used $500 won on the “Password” quiz show to buy a one-way ticket to Saigon, paying her own way as a freelancer. As an infant, Kazickas had barely survived a harrowing World War II escape from Dresden, just ahead of its bombing. Her mother begged her not to go to Vietnam. “Everything we have done in life was to keep you from ever having to live through a war again,” her mother said.

Her concerns bore out when Kazickas took shrapnel in her face, legs and, to her embarrassment, her rear end. “[S]he got what she was looking for,” a military officer commented.

But, of course, Kazickas hadn’t been looking to get shot. Like countless other journalists, she had been seeking to cover the news. As she explained to another Marine who questioned why a woman would show up in a war zone, “I’m a reporter, and this is the biggest story of our times.”

For most of these reporters, getting to the biggest story wasn’t easy. Their editors were often reluctant, and the military often unwelcoming. “I will never send a woman to Vietnam,” Tad Bartimus quotes a top Associated Press editor as vowing. But Bartimus lobbied ceaselessly, pointing out that rival United Press International already had top reporter Kate Webb on the scene. In 1973, Bartimus got her chance.

At first, she was offered safe assignments away from the front, but Bartimus and most of the women in this book resisted such restrictions. “I couldn’t let that happen,” UPI’s Tracy Wood writes. “I was a full reporter, not a partial reporter.”

Commanding Gen. William Westmoreland even considered banning women from overnight visits to the front but backed down when they mobilized against him.

Soldiers in the field, the women report, treated them well, and the book contains few examples of outright harassment. In one case, a commanding officer asked Kazickas to pose for pictures with the troops, but she declined, “explaining that I was a reporter, there to do my job and nothing more.” A South Vietnamese general asked ABC’s Laura Palmer if she would “go-go for me,” but Palmer demurred.

The biggest problem, UPI’s Wood writes, was not so much overt sexism as “well-meaning men in positions of authority who honestly believed it was more important to protect women from risks than encourage them to reach for the stars.”

Unquestionably the risks were real. Kazickas was wounded. Bartimus had to be evacuated with an incapacitating autoimmune disease. And UPI’s Webb was captured by North Vietnamese troops and spent 23 days as a prisoner, learning on her release that she had been reported killed and her family had held a memorial service for her.

The book is full of good war stories and inspiring journalistic intrepidness, and of course it raises a fundamental question: Are women war reporters different from men? (See “Women on War,” March 1994.) “War Torn” may not definitively answer the question, but it repeatedly underlines it. Kazickas, for example, describes a poignant battlefield scene in which a “GI clutching his bloody leg in the muck and the mud” said, “I don’t want a woman to see me die this way.”

During another battle, she put away her journalistic tools, took gauze and bandages from a medic, and started patching up bloody soldiers. “I was criticized by other reporters for deviating from my role as a reporter,” she writes. “I made no apologies.”

It is striking, in fact, how often the reporters in this book got involved. Ann Bryan Mariano, working for a publication called Overseas Weekly, became friends with a nun who ran an orphanage and “helped dozens of American families adopt Vietnamese children.” Mariano herself adopted a 6-week-old from Vietnam.

ABC’s Anne Morrissy Merick taught English to Vietnamese police and organized relief activities for refugees. Palmer took a gravely ill infant from a Saigon orphanage, got her to American doctors and saw her through to adoption by an Indiana family. In one suffering village, a woman suddenly thrust a sick baby at Kazickas. “I took the tiny child in my arms and begged the medics to care for it,” she writes.

The nine writers here seem remarkably candid about these and many other matters. Several write about what the AP’s Edith Lederer calls the “mad social life,” including good food, easy sex and rampant drug use. “My relaxation was friendly sex, made intense by the situation of war,” writes Denby Fawcett of the Honolulu Advertiser. “[I]n Vietnam sex was like breathing good air, a stamp of gratitude for being alive.”

They’re also open and good-humored about bodily functions. “[T]aking a pee in the field was a problem,” Webb reports, just before recounting how she rigged up a makeshift sanitary napkin from parachute silk and then had to use it as an emergency white flag.

Perhaps the least satisfying parts of this book come when the writers explore the long-term effects of covering Vietnam. They tell their individual tales with compelling detail but are short on introspection. “Vietnam taught me a lot about war and peace, about life and death, about relationships–and about myself,” Lederer writes in a typical passage, but she offers little elaboration.

Perhaps that is because Vietnam was so all-consuming that it defies easy articulation. “I never talked about my life in Vietnam until now, 36 years later,” Fawcett writes. “[T]he most difficult question is: ‘In what ways did Vietnam change your life?’ I have difficulty answering, because Vietnam is my life…. I pray to leave Vietnam, but I never can.”

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