Barbara Robbins was the first female killed in the line of duty in Vietnam
It was late morning on March 30, 1965. A Citroen was parked with its hood up on the street outside the CIA’s Saigon Station inside the five-story U.S Embassy compound near the Saigon River at 39 Hàm Nghi Boulevard.
According to a May 6, 2012, article in the Washington Post by Ian Shapira, a police officer had begun arguing with the driver of the Citroen, “The driver was being ordered to leave, and when he refused, the cop opened fire. Just then, another Vietnamese riding a scooter motored up alongside the driver and began shooting at the police officer.”
Several CIA employees – “Rosemary Dunn, Evelyn Flagg, Dorothy Peters, and [Barbara Annette] Robbins ran to the deputy chief of station’s office to peer out the windows…” Robbins was holding a pencil and wearing a light green skirt and yellow blouse.
Seconds later Robbins died instantly as the 300 pounds of Explosif Plastique – plastic explosives – in the Citroen exploded and essentially destroyed the embassy building sending the “iron grates and windows … into the office like knives… No one could hear Robbins. The only thing they heard was Dunn reciting the Hail Mary…” Actually – in hindsight, the bomb was “heard” all over the world. The bomb killed 19 Vietnamese, two Americans, and one Filipino; and injured183 others.
For ‘Women’s History Month’ I reflected upon this story and the countless other unsung female heroes of Vietnam. My thoughts drifted back to August 2016 when my wife Caroline and I visited the Vietnam Memorial in honor of a generation who gave their all at a difficult time in our country’s history. Approximately 60 feet away from the Vietnam Wall, stands a smaller monument with an outsized impact.
The Vietnam Women’s Memorial, located in the National Mall at 5 Henry Bacon Drive SW, in Washington, D.C., was designed by Glenna Goodacre, and was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1993, to the women who served and sacrificed in the Vietnam War.
The memorial is haunting. It chillingly depicts three nurses attending to a dying casualty of the war. Of the many stories I have written about Vietnam; I have only written about the experience of visiting the Women’s Vietnam Memorial once. Portions of this discussion have been published before and are repeated here because it is a story that needs to be retold repeatedly.
It took Diane Carlson Evans, RN Army Nurse Corps, Vietnam 1968-69, nine years of hard fought advocacy to get the women’s monument added to the Vietnam Memorial. This, in spite of the fact that nearly 11,000 women served in the military in Vietnam. The service of women in Vietnam had an outsized impact on the war and those who served. The memorial says it best: “Despite the lack of national recognition, these woman demonstrated courage, commitment, and sacrifice.”
According to the foundation, 67 American women – eight military women and 59 civilians – died in the war. Thirty-eight civilian women died in a plane crash on April 4, 1975, during Operation Babylift, the evacuation of South Vietnamese orphans.
Among the four women POWs, two were executed by burning them alive on Nov. 2, 1972, in the town of Ban Kengkok, near Savannakhet, Laos. The mission to save them was scrapped because it was deemed “politically inflammatory at a sensitive moment.”
Also among the ‘civilian’ casualties was Robbins – a mid-western girl ‘from next door.’ Robbins was raised in Colorado and had attended Colorado State University from 1961-1963 and joined the CIA shortly afterwards. She volunteered for duty in Saigon despite the fact that she had never traveled outside of the United States.
According to the 2012 Post article, it was not until a private ceremony took place in 2011 that it was revealed by then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta that Robbins was the first female killed in the line of duty to be added to the CIA’s ‘Book of Honor.’ “She is the youngest CIA employee ever killed. And, according to Panetta, she was also the first American woman to die in the Vietnam War,” reported the article. According to multiple historical accounts, the second female CIA employee to die in the war, Betty Gebhardt, was killed in 1971.
According to a Washington Post story about the Women’s Memorial, by Ruth Tam, on Nov. 8, 2013, a colleague of Evans, Edie Meeks, said of her service during the Vietnam War, “I didn’t know how to talk about it … I literally could not speak about it. Every once in a while … I’d start crying and I felt like I’d never stop.”
Meeks said, ‘We were bitter and angry about how the country treated the Vietnam generation. The monument has allowed us to let go of that and feel joy and happiness…’”
All these years later I do not know anything about feeling any “joy and happiness,” over the war as a result of visiting a monument.
According to the 2012 article in the Washington Post, “When Barbara’s father asked his 21-year-old daughter, ‘Why Vietnam?’ the answer was clear and simple,” Panetta said. “She wanted to make a difference.”
Many of us who served during the war understand this clearly. I served in the Marines, stateside, during an unpopular war, in part, to serve my country and make a difference.