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Up Close and Personal

WAR TORN: Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam, By Tad Bartimus, Denby Fawcett, Jurate Kazickas, Edith Lederer, Ann Bryan Mariano, Anne Morrissy Merick, Laura Palmer, Kate Webb and Tracy Wood, Random House: 292 pp., $24.95

September 22, 2002|JAMES E. CACCAVO | James E. Caccavo is a writer, photographer and former editor who worked in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970 for the Red Cross and Newsweek magazine. He is a trustee on the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation and a contributor to the Requiem book and exhibit project.

War is an equal opportunity abuser. It wounds or kills whomever it wants, whenever it wants, regardless of age or gender. But for women wanting to cover the war in Vietnam, the news media in the 1960s were not equal opportunity employers. Women covering the war were confronted with more than one adversary. Besides the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, women had to deal with discouraging attitudes from their employers and American military brass.

Wes Gallagher, managing editor of Associated Press, told reporter Tad Bartimus, "I will never send a woman to Vietnam," and United Press International foreign editor Bill Landry told reporter Tracy Wood, "I don't believe women should cover wars." AP's foreign editor, Ben Bassett wouldn't even allow women to work on the foreign desk in New York. But these women persevered, eventually changing these men's minds.

Foreign desk editors thought women in war zones would be too sensitive. They were right, but not in the way they expected. That sensitivity produced some of the most moving reports. Thanks to the determination and professionalism of a small group of female correspondents in the Vietnam War, women today have opportunities in journalism that were formally denied.

Denby Fawcett of the Honolulu Advertiser quit her job at the higher-paying Honolulu Star-Bulletin when that paper refused to send her to Vietnam. Fawcett had to pay her own way to Vietnam to freelance for the Advertiser. Of the nine contributors to "War Torn," five had to pay their own way over. The most novel was Jurate Kazickas' winning $500 on the TV game show "Password" to fund her one-way ticket to Vietnam in 1967. Laura Palmer followed a boyfriend doctor to Vietnam and got a job with ABC radio in 1972. Edith Lederer went to Vietnam first as a tourist in 1972, and AP bureau chief Richard Pyle later became instrumental in convincing Gallagher to assign Lederer there. When she showed up in Saigon for her first day, Lederer was wearing blue bedroom slippers because she broke a heel on one of her shoes boarding her flight to Saigon. "Not the image I had in mind," she reflected.

When Gen. William Westmoreland ran into Fawcett in the field, he was shocked to see the daughter of his Honolulu neighbors putting herself at such risk, and he promptly banned female correspondents from field operations by prohibiting them from staying overnight. It wasn't a matter of censorship but of safety both for the women and for the soldiers who would risk their lives to protect them.

But these young women, most in their 20s, threw political correctness and chauvinism out the door of a Huey chopper and banded together to change the directive. Anne Morrissy Merick, a producer for ABC News, and Ann Bryan Mariano of he Overseas Weekly successfully lobbied the Pentagon to retain women's right to battlefield access. Despite the lifting of the ban, the Marines--as before--continued to provide female correspondents with Marine escorts in an otherwise open and uncensored war. The last we would see.

I first met Ann Mariano in 1966 when I was working as a staff writer for the Overseas Weekly in Frankfurt, Germany. Reading her chapter, "Vietnam Is Where I Found My Family," in "War Torn" brought a rush of personal memories as she recalled, with poetic grace, the joys of meeting her future husband, Army officer and future ABC News correspondent Frank Mariano, and the adoption of their two Vietnamese daughters, Katey and Mai. Most moving, however, was the post-Vietnam tragedies that fell upon her family. Now she is struggling with Alzheimer's disease, which she describes as "blowing through my memory like wind through a Buddhist sand painting."

War is the most extreme of human experiences, and women confront their emotions differently than men. They may be more vulnerable and sensitive to human suffering around them, but they have the inherent discipline and courage to confront and deal with their own emotions. "War Torn" is honest, heart-wrenching and laced with self-deprecating humor. In "These Hills Called Khe Sanh," Kazickas writes: "I watched as Withers held his dying buddy in his arms. The moment was so intimate, so raw, so tender, it took my breath away. It was not the first time I had seen unabashed love the men showed one another on the battlefield. Soldiers in Vietnam were not afraid to express their deepest emotions. They hugged each other and sobbed openly in the aftermath of a firefight."

When Kazickas was wounded at Khe Sanh, she was brought into the bunker aid station where Marines went into a stir to provide her a bit of privacy with hung blankets.

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