Shirley Lauro’s “A Piece of My Heart”

(For my nephew, currently serving somewhere he can’t tell us. Godspeed, thank you for protecting us, and get home safe.)


Shirley Lauro’s play A Piece of My Heart, was inspired by the book of the same name. It recounts the moving stories of women who served in various capacities in The Vietnam War. These women hailed from different regions, races, backgrounds and political views. What they ultimately ended up sharing was a harrowing experience in a war that had no front lines. Women served in various capacities: stenographers, cryptographers, finance clerks, intelligence officers, and Red Cross workers.


The Women’s Army Corps: 1945 – 1978 describes how difficult life for these women truly was. The first group of WACs were shipped over in such a hurry that they received no Vietnamese language training. WACs weren’t safe going to work. Transports could be blown up, the women were subject to attack, and anti-personnel devices littered the road and sidewalks. Gen. Jean Engler was the first to request small-arms training for the women if they were transferred to field installations. As in any war, breaks were found when possible. When a unit was de-activated, a “stand down” party was thrown to celebrate returning home.


Nurses in Vietnam soon learned the prevalence of Viet Cong booby-trap wounds. These often consisted of mines that were designed to maim from the waist down. Punji pits, covered holes lined with sharpened stakes and contaminated with urine and fecal matter, were also used and led to severe bacterial infection. The nurses were exposed to a daily dose of horror, often holding the hands of young soldiers whose life was slipping away. They could expect to work six and a half days for shifts as long as fifteen hours. 


Upon returning home, many were greeted with the same derision as the soldiers by the anti-war movement, though they had never fired a weapon at an enemy combatant. They had a greater risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, since women are twice as likely to get it as men. In PTSD, the body does not recognize the difference between an event and a particularly vivid memory of an event. Both trigger the same fight or flight response. Some estimates put the number of Vietnam Vets with PTSD at thirty percent. Until prompted by the General Accounting Office in 1983, the Veterans Administration provided no services for women because it viewed the number of women vets too small to be “feasible.” They also had to deal with exposure to Agent Orange. So-named because of the orange ID bands, Agent Orange was used to as part of an herbicidal warfare campaign to expose Viet Cong hiding spots. Agent Orange exposure can include spinal bifida in infants, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a number of skin cancers, and breast tumors. There is no known cure, and the lack of a consensus on it so contested, that a federal judge threw out a class-action lawsuit because of a perceived “lack of evidence.”       

Published in: on March 30, 2009 at 12:18 am  Leave a Comment  

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