In 1966, there were about 400,000 troops in Vietnam, almost all of them men. There were only 2,500 women in the Marine Corps.
19-year-old Paula Sarlls was one of them. She was recruited right out of high school.
Sarlls says, “He told me the great opportunities there were and education was one. And I got an education in more ways than one.”
She says opportunities for women were limited to clerical, accounting, radio operators, traffic controllers and some computer work. And she says some men were openly hostile.
She says she has four pages worth of incidents she had to deal with. She describes working at a control tower where the ceiling was covered with huge spider webs.
“The guys thought it was funny to take the spider webs and pin me down and put them on my face,” she says.
When she tried to report it, she says she was told not to talk about it. “As I left the tower that night I had an eight inch knife put to my throat and told if I told anyone else, they’d kill me.“
“It kept on for two, three weeks and finally stopped. But it was pretty bad,” she says.
The women who take the new combat positions will likely face some opposition, too. “It still happens, people are people.”
But Sarlls says it’s time women have the same military career options as men. “If you can do it and they don’t lower the standards you should be allowed to do it.”
She points out women from other countries now are fighting and doing a lot of combat alongside the man. “They’re serving with them in combat now and whatever issues there are, that’s what leadership is for, is to straighten those problems out.”
Sarlls says she would have sought a combat position back in 1966 if she could have. “My husband did two tours in Vietnam and he passed away from Agent Orange cancer. And if I could have been beside him serving, I would have.”
Sarlls is a past president of the Women Marines Association.
You can find more information about them at www.WomenMarines.org.