She Served In Vietnam, But 'Nobody Had Ever Welcomed Me Home'

Nov 11, 2017
Originally published on November 11, 2017 10:48 am

In the late 1960s, Karen Offutt was a teenager and considered herself very patriotic. She got chills whenever she heard "The Star-Spangled Banner." At 18, she dropped out of nursing school and enlisted in the Army and was deployed to Vietnam.

"I felt real proud to have the uniform on," Offutt, 68, told her 42-year-old daughter Kristin Glasgow at StoryCorps.

"I was an executive stenographer. I had top secret 'eyes only' clearance. And a lot of times they would call me in the middle of the night to come in — if we were gonna do an airstrike on a certain village," Offutt says.

But she also experienced degrading treatment as a woman in the Army.

"I had to look 'cutie,' you know, with my hair and my lipstick or whatever — and serve tea," she tells her daughter. "Whatever was needed to be done I did it. Including having to pose as a 'Bunker Bunny.' "

Offutt says she had to do what she was told, "or you didn't last long in the service."

As a woman, she also didn't get the same recognition that a man would get for helping save lives.

One day, Offutt says, she smelled smoke in her hotel room where she lived. She saw the hamlet next door was on fire.

"I just ran down and started grabbing people and dragging them out," Offutt tells Glasgow. "The hamlet chief wanted me to have some kind of award and they put me in for the Soldier's Medal. But they said, 'We don't really give those to women and so we're going to give you a certificate of appreciation for heroic action.' And so that's what they did and I thanked them and I went back to work."

Glasgow says she doesn't remember her mother talking about being in service when she was growing up. "Why did you not talk about being in the Army for so long?" Glasgow asks her mother.

"That was your father," Offutt says. "He didn't allow me to talk about Vietnam, at all, so I just didn't talk about it until I left him 16 years later."

Later on, she found slides tucked away in their house.

"I remember just sitting there crying," Offutt says. "I think it was, when you have to put something away, and lock it inside of you for so long and you're not allowed to speak of it, I just felt lost."

Glasgow asks her mother if there's anything that's helped her through the challenging times.

"I think talking to veterans," Offutt says.

Offutt says she went to the Moving Wall, the traveling half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in 1986.

"I remember standing there, staring at those names because I knew some of those guys on the wall. This man came up and put his arm around me and he said, 'Welcome home, sister.' And I just started bawling because nobody had ever welcomed me home."

Audio was produced for Weekend Edition by Kerrie Hillman, John White and Sarah Lilley.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today's Veterans Day. And now we'll listen to the Military Voices Initiative from StoryCorps, interviews between veterans and their loved ones.

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SIMON: In the late 1960s, Karen Offutt was a teenager. She was very patriotic, got chills whenever she heard "The Star-Spangled Banner." At 18, she dropped out of nursing school to enlist in the Army and was deployed to Vietnam. She spoke with her daughter Kristin.

KRISTIN GLASGOW: Can you tell me what it was like being a woman in the Army during that time?

KAREN OFFUTT: I felt real proud to have the uniform on. I was an executive stenographer. I had top-secret-eyes-only clearance. A lot of times, they would call me in the middle of the night to come in if we were going to do an air strike on a certain village. And in addition to that, I had to look cutie, you know, with my hair and my lipstick or whatever and serve tea. And whatever was needed to be done, I did it, you know, including having to pose as a bunker bunny, which was humiliating. But you do what you were told, or you didn't last long in the service.

GLASGOW: Can you take me through the day of the fire and what happened?

OFFUTT: We lived in an old hotel. Next to us, there was a hamlet. And it housed a lot of people. Well, I was in my room, and I smelled smoke really badly. And I saw the hamlet was on fire. And so I just ran down and started grabbing people and dragging them out. The hamlet chief wanted me to have some kind of award, and they put me in for the Soldier's Medal. But they said, we don't really give those to women. And so we're going to give you the certificate of appreciation for heroic action. And so that's what they did. And I thanked them, and I went back to work.

GLASGOW: Growing up, I don't remember you talking about being in service. Why did you not talk about being in the Army for so long?

OFFUTT: That was your father. He didn't allow me to talk about Vietnam at all. So I just didn't talk about it until I left him 16 years later. And I had found a bunch of slides that were, I think, in the attic at our house. And I remember just sitting there, crying. I think it was, you know, when you have to put something away and lock it inside of you for so long, and you're not allowed to speak of it. I just felt lost.

GLASGOW: What has helped you the most through all of this?

OFFUTT: I think talking to veterans. I went to the Moving Wall. And that was in 1986. And I remember standing there, staring at those names because I knew some of those guys on the wall. This man came up and put his arm around me, and he said, welcome home, sister. And I just started bawling because nobody had ever welcomed me home.

SIMON: Karen Offutt and her daughter Kristen Glasgow in Clovis, Calif. Karen was eventually awarded the Soldier's Medal in 2001. Their conversation will be archived at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. And you can hear more stories from veterans on the StoryCorps podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETER BENCE'S "DESPACITO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.