From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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The Women

By John Ketwig (reviewer)

The Women
by Kristin Hannah
(St. Martin's Press, 2024)

A while back, I submitted a review of The Great Alone, a novel about a family's struggle with a Vietnam veteran's PTSD. Kristin Hannah is a #1 New York Times best-selling author with over twenty novels to her credit. I mainly read nonfiction, but I was intrigued by that book and admitted that it was "one of those books you can't put down, and I have become a Kristin Hannah fan." When I learned that Kristin Hannah had a new novel about the women nurses in Vietnam and their readjustment struggles after returning from the war, I had to read it. I can assure you, this is another book you can't put down, and I am even more of a fan of this author.

Frances "Frankie" McGrath is a privileged young woman living with her parents on Coronado Island in San Diego. The story begins in 1966. Frankie's brother, Finley, has graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and there is a swanky, upscale celebration party underway in the backyard of McGrath's luxurious home. Frankie and Finley have always been close, enjoying surfing, swimming, and the southern California climate. Finley is getting all the attention of the party guests, and Frankie feels a little left out. She slips into her father's office, a formal room dominated by a wall devoted to the family's military history, photos and mementos, medals, and awards arranged as a shrine. Frankie knows her father was never in the military due to a medical deferment, but that family wall is a centerpiece of the family home. Rye, Finley's close friend, ducks into the office to sneak a cigarette, stands before the wall, and asks, "How come there are no pictures of women up here, except for the wedding pictures?"

"It's a heroes wall," Frankie answers, "to honor the sacrifices our family has made in service of our country."

Rye responds, "Women can be heroes." Frankie laughs, but that sentence will haunt her far into the future. She grew up in a very structured family environment, and she is expected to be a model, well-bred young lady who is smiling and serene. Home, church, and St. Bernadette's Academy for Girls had instilled a rigorous sense of propriety. The unrest going on across the country these days, on city streets and college campuses, was a distant and alien world to her, as incomprehensible as the conflict in faraway Vietnam. Despite the party atmosphere, Frankie knows that Finley has volunteered to go to that conflict, and she detects an undercurrent of fear and concern.

In the strict upscale California neighborhood, a young lady has only three careers: secretary, teacher, or nurse. Frankie chooses to be a nurse and graduates as an RN. Finley is in Vietnam, and she wants to help. She tries the Navy, as her family has a long Navy history, but they require nurses to work two years in a hospital before they will be considered for Vietnam. The Air Force has the same requirement, but the Army signs her up and swears her in. She thinks her parents will be proud, but they are terribly negative. "Good Lord, what will we tell people?" her mother exclaims. During that conversation, the doorbell rings. Two officers have come to inform the McGraths that Finley has been killed in Vietnam. Devastated, Frankie arrives in Vietnam soon after.

Of course, a book about the horrors a nurse experiences in the Vietnam War has to describe an assortment of gory, gut-wrenching wounds, long hours, and shortages of supplies. In addition to soldiers, they treat wounded Vietnamese, too. Frankie has never seen or imagined such trauma, but she works hard and becomes a valued combat nurse. The helicopters come in waves, bringing casualties from a major battle at a small hamlet called Dak To. Mass casualties are called MASCAL, and Frankie thinks she has made a mistake. Of course, some of the other nurses are supportive and helpful. They work as long as it takes, exhausting hours filled with bloody tragedies and young American soldiers wounded far from home. The doctors are men who cannot keep up with the demands. Frankie learns to stitch up wounds after surgeries and many other skills that allow the docs to do more. One doc in particular, Jamie, becomes a romantic interest, but as he is flying out to go home, his chopper is shot down, and he is terribly wounded and brought to Frankie's hospital. The docs say he can't be saved.

Frankie is transferred to the 71st hospital in Pleiku when she gets good at being a trauma nurse. "Rocket City," they call it. She looks down on her new home from the helicopter, and her description of Pleiku does not bear the slightest resemblance to the place that was my home for a year. It doesn't matter, more than half a century later. The hospital's interior is just as bloody and traumatic as it could be. But Frankie has matured and gained a valuable set of skills. She knows she is helping wounded American guys. She is saving lives, and she is focused on that. She can't imagine going home and re-ups for a second tour. Her mother is incredulous, but Frankie needs to do what must be done. She runs into Rye, her brother Finley's best friend, now an army officer, and they become romantically involved.

Finally, it is time for her to go home. She discovers her parents have told their friends that she was studying in Florence, Italy. They are ashamed of her! Her father will not put her picture on his "Wall of Heroes." Seeking help, she goes to a veterans PTSD rap group but is not allowed to sit in because the (male) vets insist "there were no women in Vietnam." Two of her friends, fellow nurses from Vietnam, support and encourage her throughout the story, especially now. Frankie bounces like a marble in a pinball machine. She aligns herself with VVAW and is there in Washington for Dewey Canyon when VVAW vets throw their medals back onto the steps of the Capitol. Later, with her latest romantic interest, Henry, she travels to Miami for the 1972 Republican National Convention and acknowledges spokesperson Ron Kovic. Back in California, she falls in with the League of Families, wives of POWs demanding the US government do more to bring their husbands home. She discovers she is pregnant, and her parents are horrified, but Henry wants to marry her, and a wedding date is set. The war finally ends, the POWs return home, and Rye is among them. Frankie has never really been in love with Henry, and she rushes to the San Diego airport to see Rye get off the plane. Her euphoria evaporates when Rye goes directly to his wife and child. He lied to Frankie long ago in Vietnam. She loses her baby and breaks off her engagement.

I don't want to be a spoiler. This is a terrific book, 465 pages, and you will turn them one after the other until late at night. Kristin Hannah is an outstanding writer. The Women is intended to honor the women who went to Vietnam, and she includes ample mention of Donut Dollies. As this is written, on March 15th, today's newspaper tells us Congress has authorized the creation of a gold medal to be awarded to the women who were Donut Dollies. Of course, they were ineligible for VA medical coverage or other benefits all these years, and many are no longer with us. Perhaps today's congresspeople need to appreciate the message behind Dewey Canyon and all those medals discarded upon the capitol steps. The pharmaceutical industry is now the number one contributor to legislator's campaign funds, surpassing even the "defense" contractors, so any thought of offering free medical coverage is considered too costly.

The Women is currently the number one best-selling hardcover novel. Kristin Hannah is respected, and her latest novels always seem to jump to the top of the list. Okay, I get it. But I am reviewing this book for Vietnam Veterans Against the War because it deserves to be read by every Vietnam vet and every American who experienced those passionate, desperate, important times. The Women is one helluva story, a realistic picture of the era and what the war did to our generation. The book ends with the dedication of The Wall in Washington, DC: "And there it was: remembrance mattered. She knew that now; there was no looking away from war or from the past, no soldiering on through pain." The facing page is a photograph of the Vietnam Women's Memorial. It is a fitting end for a story that will strangle your heart and keep you turning pages from the first page to the last. Kristin Hannah made the effort to investigate the Vietnam era and the generation most affected by the war. The Women is an amazing, realistic portrait that deserves to be read by every vet, every spouse, surviving parent, our children, and grandchildren. It's not a women's book. Men, especially veterans, will love it! It should be the number one best-seller far into the future. The Women has been optioned by Warner Brothers to become a movie. At long last, the truth is coming out!

John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of the best-selling memoir …and a hard rain fell: A GI's True Story of the War in Vietnam, and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.

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