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Aiken’s Veterans Day ceremony offers female perspective about military service

November 13, 2018

A Vietnam veteran, who was a captain in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, provided a female perspective on military service during a Veterans Day ceremony on Monday at Millbrook Baptist Church in Aiken.

“When you hear the word ‘veteran,’ it’s doubtful you initially think of a woman veteran,” said Linda Caldwell, who was the event’s keynote speaker. “Let’s face it, more men than women serve in the military.

“But it’s estimated that by 2045, women will account for 20 percent of the veteran population,” she continued. “Indeed, women have been part of the military since war began. From the Revolutionary War, when women served as cooks and nurses, to present day Afghanistan and other theaters, women proudly serve in multiple capacities alongside their male counterparts.”

And, Caldwell pointed out, female members of the Armed Forces have been getting more opportunities in recent years to become military leaders.

“In my day, the rank of colonel was about as high as a woman could go,” she said, “but now there are women in the general officer and admiralty ranks. Also in my day, a woman on active duty could be married, but not pregnant. We’ve come a long way, baby, as the old Virginia Slims cigarette ads used to say.”

Caldwell talked about her experiences in Vietnam at the 67th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon.

“I lived through the Tet Offensive in 1968 when we admitted patients by candlelight,” she said. “We were afraid to turn on the overhead lights because we were located next to an airfield and we didn’t want to be an enemy target. Those of us who worked the day shift, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., slept under our beds in our hooches (the nurses’ term for their bedrooms).”

Helmets and flak jackets provided additional protection.

Caldwell volunteered to go to Vietnam, and even though her time there often was harrowing, “it was an experience I’ll never forget and have never once regretted,” she said. “And if I had to make that decision again today, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

Caldwell had many patients. One of her favorites, she said, was Jim Baczkowski, whose right leg was amputated after a firefight with North Vietnamese soldiers.

Years later Caldwell and Baczkowski had an emotional reunion on the NBC television show “Unsolved Mysteries” after Baczkowski expressed the desire to find Caldwell because he believed she had been responsible for his survival in Vietnam.

In addition, Caldwell told a story about Dick Ziegler, a helicopter pilot who ate at her hospital’s mess hall because he was based at the adjacent airfield.

He proudly showed Caldwell and others pictures of his family, which included a newborn son.

“When I hadn’t seen him for several weeks, I asked his fellow pilots where he was,” Caldwell said. “They sadly informed me he had been shot down and was believed to be a prisoner of war.”

Then there was no more news, so Ziegler’s fate remained unknown to Caldwell.

“Fast forward to 1973, when my husband and I were living in Denver,” Caldwell said. “I opened the local newspaper and to my shock and delight, there was a picture on the front page of Dick being greeted by his young son as he stepped off a plane after he returned to the U.S.”

Caldwell visited Ziegler while he was receiving treatment at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center following his imprisonment in North Vietnam.

“He told me I’d never know how often he spoke to his fellow prisoners about me and all the other nurses in the 67th,” Caldwell said. “He said it was their way of maintaining their sanity and keeping their memories current and sharp.”

The Marine Corps League’s James L. Hammons Detachment No. 939 organized the Veterans Day ceremony. It was originally scheduled for Aiken County Veterans Memorial Park, but was moved to Millbrook’s gymnasium because rain was in Monday’s weather forecast.

The Hammons Detachment’s commandant, Larry Frelin, and judge advocate, Joe Featherston, said Caldwell was the first woman to ever speak during one of the group’s public ceremonies, which are held annually to commemorate Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

Caldwell had been scheduled to deliver the keynote address during the Hammons Detachment’s Memorial Day ceremony earlier this year, but the event was canceled because of a prediction for heavy rainfall.

In addition to Caldwell, Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon and S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, spoke during Monday’s Veterans Day ceremony. Featherston served as the narrator, and Frelin also made remarks.

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