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War Widow's Book to Look at Survivors : Woman, Who Met Challenge, to Tell Story of Others Who Lost Husbands in Vietnam

February 05, 1987|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

When Jean Blankenship opened the door and saw two Marine Corps officers standing stoically on the front steps of her Costa Mesa home, she knew instantly that her husband had been killed in Vietnam.

On that April morning in 1969, she sat in stunned silence in her living room as they told her that Maj. Leroy Blankenship, then 40, had been killed the day before when the helicopter he was piloting was shot down near Da Nang.

Blankenship said her life was shattered. The man she had married at 16 and shared her life with for 22 years was gone. At 38, without even a high school diploma, Blankenship was left alone to support herself and her two children.

"My 'June Cleaver' days of being a housewife were over," she said, referring to the mother in the television series "Leave It To Beaver."

Blankenship, now 56 and living in Fountain Valley, is one of 17,169 widows of American men killed in the Vietnam War, a National Archives spokesman said.

She has made what she said has been the difficult transition from being a homemaker, who daily baked cookies for her children to snack on after school, to being a busy career woman, whose current cooking is limited to "throwing bread in the toaster and using the microwave."

Now Blankenship is embarked on what she says is her most ambitious project: She's writing what is believed to be the first book about the widows and the mothers, daughters, sisters and girlfriends of the 58,123 American men killed in the Vietnam War.

No books have been written about Vietnam widows, according to the Library of Congress. Spokesmen for the Society of Military Widows, the National Assn. of Military Widows, the Vietnam Veterans of America and similar organizations say Blankenship is the only person they know of working on a book about women survivors.

Only recently have Vietnam veterans received much recognition for their efforts, they said, and, therefore, there wasn't any interest in writing about their widows.

To overcome this oversight, Blankenship said, "I want to write about the quiet courage these women showed in trying to put their lives back together again with no fanfare and little support."

The working title of her book, "Women With Folded Flags," is derived from the folded American flags given to widows at the conclusion of military funerals.

"What happened to these women after the condolences were given, the flowers died and the flags were folded?" Blankenship wondered aloud in an interview in her Foutain Valley condominium.

The 100 letters she has received from these women since she bagan her research 18 months ago have yielded some surprises:

- Mothers of teen-age sons killed in Vietnam were particularly devastated, sometimes suffering nervous breakdowns, sometimes slipping into alcoholism.

- Most widows were in their early '20s when their husbands were killed and have remarried, but Blankenship has found that "they've never forgotten their first husbands, whose loss remains an open wound."

- Because of the war's controversy, women survivors have shied away from joining organizations for veterans' families and have tried to blend unnoticed into society; they feel the country does not appreciate their loved one's sacrifices and fear anything they say about their own grief will be misunderstood or subject to renewed controversy.

All the letters, Blankenship said, "show that there are a lot of unresolved feelings (among female survivors) about the war. I'm not talking about politics, but about emotions . . . the anger and grief that burn just as intensely in their hearts today as it did when their men were killed in Vietnam 15 or 20 years ago."

Blankenship believes that these feelings exist because neither these women nor society knew how to react when men were killed in Vietnam.

Neither War Nor Peace

"It wasn't the political controversy surrounding the Vietnam War," Blankenship maintains. Rather, she believes it was because "the country was neither at war nor at peace."

Blankenship's experience as a Vietnam widow may be representative of that of women survivors of men killed in Vietnam.

She recalls that during the two weeks she waited for her husband's body to return from Vietnam "everybody rallied around me."

Relatives came from the Blankenships' native state of Washington. Neighbors in Costa Mesa, where she had lived for six years, dropped by with food or volunteered to do errands. Similar help came from Marines and their wives assigned to the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, where her husband had been stationed before his departure for Vietnam in January, 1969.

A "wonderful" Marine casualty assistance officer took a dazed Blankenship to government offices so she could learn about her benefits as a military widow.

"But he was limited to helping me with paper work," she said. "He couldn't help me with personal things, like how to deal with my grief. I had a lot of anger because nobody seemed to understand how much I was hurting."

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