Florence Holman returned from duty in Vietnam as an Air Force nurse 22 years ago. Only recently has she begun to suffer crying jags and remember the death and disfigurement she saw there.
Holman is one of the 10,000 women called "the invisible veterans," who served unnoticed and whose long-hidden pain is apparently just emerging.In the past few years, women veterans say, they have unlocked long-lost memories of the war, found fellow female vets and consoled one another.
"There are women who have never told anyone, not even their husbands, that they were in Vietnam," Holman said Thursday on the eve of Veterans Day.
Of the 10,000 women who served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, 7,484 were in Vietnam, according to the Veterans Administration. Most were nurses.
They were greatly outnumbered by the 3.4 million men who served in Southeast Asia during the war, the 350,000 women who served in World War II and even the 34,000 women in World War I.
But they saw some of the worst of war.
"They saw intense and gross casualties without relief," said psychologist Jessica Wolfe of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Boston. "Modern technology is such that men who in past wars would have died on the field instead made it to hospitals and died there."
Wolfe treats women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but said only a handful of female veterans have come to her for help.
"A lot of women don't want to talk about what they went through," she said.
Wolfe said Vietnam War nurses were often forced to make life-and-death decisions because of a lack of medical help and to assist in amputations and other difficult surgery for which they had no training.
Many of the veterans feel helpless, said psychologist Andrea Wild of the Vietnam Vet Center in Springfield.
"They would have a patient whose face was half blown off and about the only thing they could give him was morphine," she said.
Wolfe said a study scheduled for release next month puts the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among women veterans at 9 percent, compared to 15 percent for male veterans and 2 percent for the general population.
Women with the disorder show the same symptoms as men, such as terrifying nightmares and numbed feelings, Wolfe said. "Folklore has it that even Florence Nightingale suffered PTSD," she said.
The women Wolfe has treated tell of flying into Vietnam alone and remaining isolated the entire time; of fighting constant sexual harassment and sometimes rape; of getting the message from the military and civilians that they weren't true combatants despite their work and the hostility they faced on their return.
Holman, who is a nurse in Ludlow just north of here, served in an intensive care unit at an Air Force hospital at Cam Ranh Bay in 1966.