A study conducted by researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has found evidence suggesting that women who were in Vietnam for either civilian or military service are happier than women of the general population.
Considerably less research and statistics are devoted to military women when compared to the vast research regarding military men. Most of the research on women in Vietnam concentrates on military nurses, and almost no investigations exist on the physical conditions of the civilian women deployed to Vietnam.
During the Vietnam Era, approximately 265,000 women served in the U.S. military. When they were assigned combat-intensive roles, the women were deployed to high-stress warzones and gunfire ranges. Women were primarily responsible for handling war casualties and expected to maintain a traditionally feminine appearance, which included high heels and panty hose.
Participants were randomly selected from the mailing list of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that aims to provide support for female Vietnam War veterans.
After the researchers had sent out a survey to the women who comprise the mailing list three times, 66 percent of women on the mailing list responded and a sample size of 1,285 women was picked for analysis.
Of the women who responded to the questionnaire, 977 were military women who fought during the Vietnam War and 308 were civilian women who mainly served as American Red Cross workers. American Red Cross workers made up the majority of what the researchers considered civilian women.
Ninety-six percent of all respondents said that their war involvement had at least one positive experience. Many women revealed that their positive experiences came from working with the wounded troops and civilians in Vietnam. However, 68 percent of the same population affirmed that there had been at least one significant negative experience, including issues such as drug and alcohol problems, poor living conditions, rape or threat.
Other questions revolved around the current lifestyle inhabited by these surveyed women. Researchers distributed the questionnaire 25 years after their service in the Vietnam War. Some topics of interest included current profession and if it related to previous service, any injuries or wounds sustained from service and involvement in volunteer organizations post-service.
Participants were also asked to self-assess their health and happiness levels in their current lifestyles with respect to their service from 25 years ago. Researchers also inquired about the number of kids each participant had.
To account for any factors that could influence the results, the researchers separated the women into four main categories: civilian women, women who served less than 10 years in the military, women who served more than 10 years but less than 20 and women who served more than 20 years. Women with more than two decades of service were classified as “career military women” and were found to be the least likely group to marry or bear children. Career military and civilian women were more likely to have had a professional education experience.
Women additionally reported experiences of sexual harassment while in service. Career military women in general reported fewer incidents of sexual harassment than women who served fewer than 10 years. Civilian women reported significantly more incidents of sexual harassment than military women did. The study also found that career military women felt more included in a community and supported by its members when they returned from combat.
The study states, “Career military women, understandably, also achieved the highest military ranks, on average, with nearly 80 percent of them having attained Lieutenant Colonel or higher, compared with just over 30 percent of middle-term women and 7 percent of short-term women.”
Researchers evaluated the selected participants for elements of post-traumatic stress disorder and found that 42 percent of the women experienced some kind of PTSD. However, the data from the study concluded that career military women experience less PTSD than women from any of the other three groups. PTSD scores were higher among civilian women.
In terms of happiness ratings, 48 percent of career military women reported feeling happy post-service, compared to 38 percent of the general population of women. Most women across all groups reported that they were in good health, but civilian women in general reported that they were in excellent health.
“It appears that civilian women who volunteered to serve in Vietnam not only pursued a unique undertaking as young women, but continued to lead different lives, with regards to marriage and family, while still reporting positive health and well-being,” the study read.
Researchers concluded that this study can contribute to enhancing the experiences and safety of current and future generations of female military forces.