War Torn-Part Two

by Abigail Pfeiffer on July 11, 2010

Jurate Kazickas

The next part of the book “War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam” is the chapter contributed by Jurate Kazickas. Her story was particularly interesting as war, and escaping Communism, was something that defined her life from the beginning.

She was born in Lithuania during World War II. In June of 1944, when she was a year and a half, Russian tanks rolled into her town of Vilnius.  Her family fled their home under the cover of darkness, as her father was an anti-communist active in the underground. She wrote: “My lullabies were the sad songs of a lost homeland set to the distant thunder of bombs as we pushed our way west toward the unknown.”

When her family was in the Breslau train station in February of 1945 they were surrounded by other desperate refuges trying to crowd onto a train that was carrying wounded German soldiers from the front lines. A soldier leaned out of a window and told Kazickas’ mom to give him the baby. Her and her mother were hid by the German soldier under a bloody bandages and army blankets. That train stopped in Dresden, and they fled that city right before British bombers destroyed the city. In 1947 her family emigrated to the United States, ironically on the USS Ernie Pyle, and she grew up in New York with no memories of her family’s flight from their homeland.  She wrote: “It seemed preordained, I like to think, that one day I would seek out a war of my own.”

While she was backpacking through Asia she stopped in Bangkok and met several GI’s on R and R fromVietnam. This was the beginning of her interest in the Vietnam War and she rearranged her travel schedule to have a layover in Saigon. She began working for Look magazine but they refused to send her over to Vietnam as a correspondent.  She became a freelancer and had to pay her own way over to Vietnam. She arrived in Vietnam in 1967 and in less than three months was in a long range patrol with Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Regiment. Although she was a properly credentialed correspondent and that entitled her to cover any military mission in Vietnam, the Marines were not going to let a woman have free reign so they appointed an official escort.  Her escort, Staff Sgt Johnson, a desk clerk,was more nervous than she was to go on the patrol.

After five exhausting hours fighting their way through the underbush, she began to question what she was doing there. She wrote about some of her conversations with the soldiers from Lima Company and how they thought she was crazy to come to Vietnam, especially when they found out she was a freelancer.  The second day into the five day patrol her escort, Sgt Johnson, become a heat and exhaustion casualty. Since Johnson had to leave the patrol that meant that Kazickas also had to leave, despite all of her pleading to Captain Bynum.  He called in a chopper to evacuate them, which most likely gave away their position to the NVA.  She felt a sense of guilt for their position being compromised, and although the blame fell on Johnson, she still felt that she may be blamed as the female correspondent if something happened to the patrol.  Several days later as she was working in the press center another correspondent asked her if she was with the Lima Company patrol near Khe Sanh.  He told her that Bynum had been killed and she assumed that it was because the NVA learned their position after the chopper evacuation.  This feeling of guilt she carried around with her during her time in Vietnam. She wrote: “I put aside the incident and tried to forget about it, a task that would prove impossible during the coming months and even years.”

A recurring theme of her time in Vietnam was one of gender. She never felt completely comfortable around the “journalist fraternity.” Many of the other male correspondents felt that the women correspondents should be writing about widows and orphans and leave the combat reporting to the men. I assumed that since there was only a small number of women correspondents that they would have bonded and socialized together.  But, I was wrong in my assumption.  Kazickas wrote: “Unlike male journalists, who partied together and occasionally partnered on patrols, we rarely socialized with one another and kept our distance while chasing stories.  I felt that there was almost an unwritten rule: With plenty of war action to go around, from the DMZ to the Delta, there was no need for two women to show up with the same unit, as if we were in competition for exclusive attention from the troops.” She did feel a sense of regret of never getting to know the other female correspondents, as if the women could have bonded together about being in a war zone with other women who could understand.

The summer that she was in Vietnam saw Kazickas begin to doubt the Vietnam War. As she spent more time in the field and being a witness to the casualties, she felt that the war was becoming more and more depressing. “I began to realize the futility of fighting a guerrilla war with massive firepower and trying to decimate NVA battalions that kept replenishing themselves from a seemingly endless supply of manpower.”

Perhaps her most defining moment in Vietnam came during March of 1968.  She had just gotten  new assignment to interview the men of Khe Sanh, particularly the one from New York for a local New York radio station.  Gaining access to Khe Sanh was not easy, especially during this time.  She leapfrogged the waiting list of other correspondents and arriving on March 7, 1968.  She found soldiers from New York and began interviewing them when incoming artillery landed about 20 yards from where she was sitting. A soldier grabbed her arm and they started running to the nearest bunker. Her face and body was peppered with shrapnel and she had to be evacuated by chopper. During her time being treated she felt a terrible loneliness during this time, and was the first time that she cried during her time in Vietnam. “Even during the months of covering battles and witnessing the carnage of war, I had avoided tears.  I had convinced myself that if I broke down, it would prove that women didn’t belong in war.” But everyone has a breaking point and that was hers.

Years later when she was back in the United States she was still haunted by Bynum.  She found a Lima Company veteran who informed her that Bynum did not die on that patrol, but during another battle.  This horrible guilt that she had been carrying around was not justified, and she could let that horrible feeling go.

One thing about Vietnam and American involvement in the war is a question of if our soldiers died in vain. While Kazickas was in Vietnam she asked Reverand Ray Stubble, who was the Lutheran chaplain of Khe Sanh and a military historian, if the men who died in Vietnam had died in vain. His response: “I don’t think that Vietnam was worth fighting for, but I cannot bring myself to say their deaths were meaningless. War is not about divisions and battalions of men. It is made up of squads and recon teams and your buddies in the bunker. These men did not die for Vietnam or Washington.  They died for their friends-trying to save each other or giving of themselves to prevent others from dying. These deaths were not meaningless because the men died for each other.”

Kazickas’ account of her time in Vietnam was fascinating and it was interesting to read another female perspective of the Vietnam War. Although this war was fought mostly by men, there were women involved from the female correspondents to the nurses who cared for the wounded.  Even today, decades after the Vietnam War there are still so many questions about the war and so much interest in the experiences of the soldiers who fought it. I would love to hear from any Vietnam Veterans who had any experiences with any of the female correspondents during the war. There are still several more accounts of women correspondents during the Vietnam War so stay tuned!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Art Whitney July 12, 2010 at 4:57 am

Very good read. I enjoyed both editions very much. I hed not the oppertunity to see or speak w/female correspondents durring my two tours but did speak w.several male counterparts. It is interesting to read about the women and how they adapted and viewed the war. Thanks Abby.

Abigail Pfeiffer July 12, 2010 at 8:01 am

I am just really fascinated by this book and these women correspondents. It takes guts to go to a war zone, regardless of the role one is playing. A recurring theme in most of these women’s accounts is that they had to beg to be sent over to Vietnam. Female correspondents made officers nervous because of the chance that they might get killed. These women knew the risks they were taking going over to Vietnam, but they still did it and that’s what I admire about them.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: