Several years after her return stateside, Martha, a Navy nurse who served in Vietnam, is blunt with the newbies in her scene in A Piece of My Heart. "The brass ignored us all," she says. "They didn't even keep track of how many women served—no official list."
That's true. The Defense Department says approximately 7,500 military women saw active duty in Vietnam, but the Veterans Administration ups that estimate by almost fifty percent. Significantly, neither number includes nonmilitary women who served in organizations like the Red Cross or the U.S.O. Independent surveys trying to assess the total civilian and non-civilian American women in Vietnam place the number between 33,000 and 55,000.
Journalist Keith Walker interviewed twenty-six of them for his 1985 bestseller, A Piece of My Heart. Shirley Lauro condensed them into six composite characters in her stage adaptation, now part of a three-play series on "Women and War" from Raleigh Little Theatre.
The panorama of experiences on view belies the narrow wartime roles available to women in the sixties. Nearly ninety percent of women who served in Vietnam were nurses like Leeann (Emily James), Sissy (Elaine Quagliata), and head nurse Martha (Laura J. Parker). The remaining characters include Steele (Jacqueline Allene Deas-Brown), who works in military intelligence, MaryJo (Dara Lyon Warner), an entertainer for the U.S.O., and Red Cross volunteer Whitney (Jean Higgins Jamison).
Lauro emphasizes the women's naiveté as they first contemplate service. Vassar graduate Whitney believes Saigon is still a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city—"plus, they speak French"—when she applies to the American Red Cross. Martha thinks it will be "romantic" to serve, as her mom did, as a nurse in a warzone. Sissy and Leeann are similarly seduced by nursing-school recruitment films' promises of gleaming medical facilities with cutting-edge equipment.
Needless to say, the realities they face upon arrival are different. With their aircraft under fire, the cabin—and the theater—is blacked out on landing. For a few suspenseful moments, characters and audience hear nothing but the rapid breathing of recruits under attack, in the dark, with no idea of what is about to happen.
Guest director Mia Self has forged a strong ensemble with these actors, clearly following the women's story lines as they are placed in similar extremes. Under Elizabeth Grimes Droessler's evocative lights and Min Ming Hsu's sound design, the group conveys the chaos and panic of a warzone emergency room receiving mass casualties and the bloodbath of the fateful Tet Offensive.
In the second act, Lauro chronicles the women's struggles to find some degree of normalcy when their wartime experiences follow each of them back home. It's an irony of war that so many of these women, originally tasked with saving others' lives, finally must work the hardest to save themselves. Their hard-won peace, after a war no one could win, moved us all last weekend.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Missing Piece."