The Defining Generation
Defining the Role of the Sexes
Karen Irene Offutt
Reprinted, by permission from James E. Wise, Jr. and Scott Baron, Women at War: Iraqi, Afghanistan and Other Conflicts, (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, © 2006).
were on the second floor of an old hotel. Across the alleyway were a
series of Vietnamese shanties, made of beer cans and thatch roofs. A
bamboo-type awning extended across all the houses. That awning was on
fire, and [Vietnamese] were running around trying to salvage their things.
I ran down and pulled some women and children out. I was barefoot and
burned my feet. I don't remember much. Eventually, the fire department
Offutt doesn't feel she did anything especially heroic, and remembers with more clarity that she wrote home about the incident, and her mother organized churches and neighbors to collect clothes and send them to Vietnam for the children. Offutt was surprised when she was called to MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and informed that the Hamlet Chief had written a letter commending her for saving numerous lives, and that she was to be awarded the Soldier's Medal. Then, on 24 January, officials told Offutt that women were not awarded Soldier's Medals; instead, Offutt was presented with a Certificate of Achievement for Heroic Action. "I wasn't really upset at not getting it [the Soldier's Medal] because I did what anybody should have done anyway."[i]
Karen Irene Offutt was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on October 26, 1949, the only daughter between two sons. Her older brother died at a young age, and her younger brother suffered from poor health. The family was extremely poor and moved around a lot, trying to find a good climate for her brother's health. She attended Quartz Hill High School, near Lancaster, California, where she was an outgoing and popular student. She was student body vice president, ran track, and belonged to many clubs. She graduated in June 1967 at the age of seventeen.
Karen entered the California Hospital School of Nursing in Los Angeles, but quit in her second semester, feeling "academically overwhelmed." She had planned to enlist after nursing school, but one day in June 1968 she passed the recruitment trailer at the employment office and, on an impulse, enlisted.
''I'd always been super patriotic, always had chills from [hearing] the 'Star Spangled Banner.' My uncle had served in the Army, but not my father, and my brother wouldn't be accepted with asthma, so I guess I wanted to represent the family."
Offutt enlisted in the Army, and chose training as a stenographer with the promise of assignment to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, after basic training. She reported to Fort McClellan, Alabama, in July 1968. "It was like a women's prison. I'd never been cursed at before. And it was hot!"
After completing basic training, Offutt received orders to report for communications training at Fort Benning, Georgia. "I was really surprised because the recruiter had made promises. If you gave your word, that was it."
She went to her sergeant to tell her she'd received the wrong orders. "I was told to write my congressman," she remembered. "I left, but then returned. I don't know who my congressman is," she informed her sergeant.
"Then write the president," she was told.
"So I did! I sent a long letter to President Johnson," recalls Offutt.
A week before her transfer to Fort Benning, she was called to the dayroom.
There was a call for her from the Pentagon. They advised her that President Johnson had read her letter, and had directed them to be sure she was sent to Fort Benjamin Harrison. For her remaining time at Fort McClellan, she caught "every crappy detail." ''My sergeant asked me, 'Why did you do it?' I said, 'You told me to.' 'Yes,' came the reply, 'but I didn't mean it.' I was scared, because I knew that all eyes were on me, and I had better do well."
Offutt reported to Fort Benjamin Harrison in September 1968 for sixteen weeks of training as a stenographer; she graduated second in her class with the ability to take 140 words per minute dictation. She was selected for duty at the Pentagon.
"I was stationed at Fort Meyers, where the Old Guard is quartered. I would see coffins pass my quarters every day, en route to Arlington, but I never connected them with Vietnam. I was a kid."
By 1968 protests against the war were becoming more common and even young Soldiers insulated on military bases were starting to question American involvement. "I was working in logistics at the Pentagon, and it seemed everyone was protesting and I wanted to find out the truth. There was no way to know until I went. I knew many high-ranking officers, and I bugged them until I got assigned [to Vietnam]."
Offutt flew into Bien Hoa, Vietnam, on July 19, 1969, the only female on the plane. She was surprised to hear cheers as they deplaned, and was warmed by the welcome. Later, she learned that the men were cheering because their arrival meant others were going home. She was supposed to be assigned to Saigon, but instead was placed on a bus and taken to the WAC detachment at Long Binh.
"We were mortared that first night. It was the worst night of my life, and I wondered if I'd make it out."
Making it out of Long Binh proved almost as tricky. The Unit at Long Binh seemed reluctant to send Offutt to her duty station in Saigon. "They had me filling in, doing odd jobs, and I didn't even have fatigues, and felt out of place. I finally called MACV headquarters, and a sergeant major showed up from Saigon. They didn't want to release me and I was afraid he'd leave without me. He must have seen it in my eyes because he yelled at me to get my gear and get in the car. That's how I got to Saigon."
Offutt was quartered at the Bedford BEQ, on the outskirts of Tan Son Nhut, where like most, she worked six-and-a-half days a week, twelve to fifteen hours a day, and volunteered her free time at a Catholic orphanage. Her quarters were fronted by a high chain-link fence, complete with grenade catcher, and guarded by ARVN soldiers; however, she never felt safe.
"I never felt protected. There were rocket attacks, they blew up jeeps, we were shot at by snipers while on the roof on New Year's Eve. I never felt safe ... we were told they would booby-trap the children!"
Offutt worked first in logistics for generals under Gen. Creighton Abrams, dealing with matters as diverse as air strikes, relations with Vietnamese generals, and day-to-day correspondence. She remembers that life was regimented in Long Binh, but that in Saigon, "you were more on your own."[ii]
Following the award of her Certificate of Achievement on January 24 Offutt finished her tour of duty, and returned stateside in June 1970, a few weeks earlier than planned in order to be present for surgery her mother was having. Offutt was temporarily assigned to Fort MacArthur, California, and was honorably discharged as a Specialist Fifth Class on September 16, 1970.
While at Fort MacArthur, Offutt met a man whom she married after they had dated for three weeks. The marriage ended sixteen years later in divorce, leaving her with three children. Of her marriage, she'll only say "I wasn't thinking when I got back."
Coming home was a difficult transition for Offutt. Outgoing before the war, she became reclusive and more private afterward. "I cried the whole way back. America didn't seem normal when I got back. Everyone seemed worried over inconsequential matters ... foo-foo crap .... Vietnam really affected my life. It's been very difficult afterwards. Holidays are difficult. Anniversary dates of in-country events are difficult. I didn't believe it before; I do now."
Offutt later returned to school and earned her RN in 1984. Offutt also became active in veteran's affairs. She testified in Congressional hearings regarding the effects of Agent Orange, because her three children suffer from cancer, epilepsy, and ADHD, which she traces to her exposure to Agent Orange. Offutt also networked with other Vietnam vets via the Internet, and as skeptical veterans learned her story they lobbied on her behalf
On April 7, 2001, at Medard Park, east of Tampa, Florida, Karen Offutt was finally presented the Soldier's Medal she had earned thirty-one years earlier in Vietnam. A guest speaker at The Moving Wall, she was presented the medal in a surprise ceremony by a representative of Congressman Mike Bilirakis (R-Fla)
The official citation reads:
Time has not softened the
memories of her Vietnam experience for Offutt. She continues to suffer
from post-traumatic stress disorders. "People keep saying 'Why don't
you forget Vietnam?' I don't think I'll forget Vietnam because it changed
my trust in people…it isolated and changed me. The babies I took care
of, babies with their legs blown off and shrapnel wounds. I felt so
helpless and the guilt of having seen what I had…I'd like to forget
about it, but I think about it every day."
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