- Written by Robert Naeye Robert Naeye
After honorably serving three years in the U.S. Army, Audrey Bergstresser had the opportunity to go home and return to civilian life.
But to help her brother, she decided to reenlist, which she knew would involve deployment to Vietnam. There, she experienced several close calls from enemy shelling during her two years in Southeast Asia.
Bergstresser was born in 1947. She and her five siblings grew up in the small town of Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles northeast of Reading. But the town was in economic decline.
As Bergstresser recalls, “Fleetwood had very limited employment, especially for females. We didn’t even have a McDonald’s, so I couldn’t go flip hamburgers.”
She saw little hope for a better future, and her parents lacked the money to send her to college. Making matters worse, she had attention deficit disorder and struggled in school.
“I thought I was not very smart. I was a C student, and I had two English teachers who basically terrorized me,” she recalls.
Bergstresser had two older brothers who served in the Navy reserves, so she saw military service as an opportunity to learn a trade, travel, and receive GI benefits. A high school guidance counselor agreed. Her parents were also supportive. In fact, four of Bergstresser’s five siblings would serve in the military.
Bergstresser was particularly influenced by her older brother Charles, who she calls “her hero.” On her 18th birthday, in October 1965, Charles drove her to the naval recruiting office in Reading.
But there was a problem. At the time, the Navy didn’t have any positions available for women. In April 1966 she applied to the Women’s Army Corp (WAC).
As she fondly recalls, “I went to talk to the Army, and I was gone by the end of the month.”
She received her basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama, an experience she describes as “a piece of cake.” She served KP duty and took police calls, all the while forging strong bonds with the other women in her platoon.
Next, she went to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where she worked at Kirk Army Hospital as a clerk. She had a supportive commanding officer in the WAC detachment who protected women against any risk of sexual assault. And she says the men treated WAC soldiers respectfully back then, even at the lower ranks.
But according to Bergstresser, all of that changed when the Army eliminated the WAC in 1978 and allowed women to serve in nontraditional jobs. This put isolated women at risk.
“We had built-in protection against the sexual problem,” she said. “We went home at night and talked to women, and they don’t have that anymore. Unfortunately, sexual problems happen way too much.”
She then added, “They gave up a whole lot more than they earned when they did away with the women’s branches. It opened up assignments and promotional opportunities for female officers, but it didn’t do a lot of beneficial things for enlisted women. That’s my opinion from having lived through the transition.”
After her time in Maryland, the Army sent her to Belgium, where she worked at SHAPE headquarters. There, she worked as a typist in communications administration. She lived in an international barracks for women, enabling her to meet women from France, West Germany, and the U.K.
In September 1969, Bergstresser was only three weeks from being discharged when she received a message that would change the course of her life. The Army offered her an opportunity to serve in Vietnam.
She extended her enlistment to deploy to Vietnam. By going there, she hoped it would keep her younger brother, Bruce, out of the war, because the military had a rule that only one family member could serve in Vietnam at any given time.
“I volunteered to go to keep him out, because if I was there, they couldn’t send him unless he agreed to it. He was married. And I thought it was a whole lot easier for me to go as a clerk typist at some headquarters because they didn’t have enlisted women in field units,” says Bergstresser. “It was just a better deal for me to go than for him.”
But things did not work out as planned. By the time the Army approved her transfer, Bruce was already serving as a medic in Vietnam.
Bergstresser flew across the Pacific and on Thanksgiving Day landed at Cam Rahn Bay, a major U.S. base. From there, she flew to Saigon, staying briefly before being bused to Long Binh. As the Army headquarters for Vietnam, it needed clerks and typists.
“I loved the assignment,” she says.
She worked on R&D projects, where the Army tested new technologies to see if they would work in combat situations. These gadgets included night-vision goggles, xenon search lights mounted on helicopters, and Kevlar vests for small arms and shrapnel protection.
Bergstresser would read handwritten progress reports written by six majors and then bang them out on a typewriter. This was often easier said than done, given the poor handwriting and poor grammar of some of the officers.
“But eventually you learned how to decipher it,” she recalls.
Within a year she was promoted to E-6 staff sergeant and then assigned as NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge) of the repository for classified documents. Even though she was not in a combat unit, she was never far from danger in a war that had no frontlines.
Whenever her base took incoming enemy fire, something that Bergstresser says happened “often enough,” she would run to the bunker and wait it out. She recalls getting particularly frustrated when enemy sappers disrupted the water supply, which could interrupt a much-needed shower.
She and her fellow WAC servicewomen were considered noncombatants and did not carry weapons, so they had no way to fight back.
“You just sat in a bunker and hoped they didn’t zero in and hit it,” she says.
Fortunately, Bergstresser never came particularly close to enemy soldiers, although she did see POWs in a local evacuation hospital, where she went for meals. There, she sometimes smelled a strange, sweet odor that she would never forget, which turned out to be burned human flesh from the operating rooms.
“Can you understand why I would have trouble going to the dining facility to eat when I walked past that place?” she asks.
Bergstresser vividly recalls one close call when she was walking uphill to a headquarters building. An incoming round hit nearby, punching a hole in the roof of a medical building and detonating in one of the rooms. Fortunately, nobody was there at that moment.
“It was the luckiest thing,” says Bergstresser. “If they had done it 15 or 20 minutes later, the room would have been filled with people waiting to go on sick call.”
During Bergstresser’s two years in Vietnam, her colonel cut through some bureaucratic red tape to arrange a joyful reunion with her brother Bruce, whom she hadn’t seen since September 1967. Bruce was on hand to see his sister promoted to E-6.
“The colonel was awesome; I really loved the man,” she says.
Bergstresser learned to drive in Vietnam so she could work in recruiting. And she took classes from the University of Maryland, which offered extension courses to military personnel. It gave her something to do at night at a base where she didn’t really fit in with the drinking, drug, or lesbian cultures.
She had a great professor (a West Point graduate) who got her through English 101, and she learned she had a natural writing style. After returning to the States, she graduated from LaRoche College with a degree in business management.
She left Vietnam in January 1972 and flew across country to Philadelphia, where her family was waiting.
“I refused to leave the airport until they warmed up the car, because I was traveling in my summer uniform. It was 120 degrees when I left Vietnam, and when I got to Philadelphia it was like 26,” she recalls.
Bergstresser remained in the Army and went on to have a distinguished 23-year career. She worked in many jobs and in many places, including eastern and western Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Texas.
One of the highlights of her career was being the first sergeant of the Schweinfurt, Germany, Headquarters Company. It was rare for women to be assigned first sergeant.
Upon returning from Germany, she was assigned to the Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. She later graduated from the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy in January 1985.
She remained at the academy as an author and instructor and then worked in staff development. That gave her an opportunity to earn a master’s degree in management and human resources development. Among her awards are two Bronze Stars and three Meritorious Service Medals.
After retiring from the Army in June 1989, Bergstresser moved back to Pennsylvania and worked for the state’s Department of Labor and Industry. Most of her positions involved assisting her fellow veterans.
She retired in 2009 but continued to work for the Veterans of Foreign Wars as a service officer. She currently works part-time as a service officer for the Vietnam Veterans of America.
She now lives just east of Harrisburg with her two dogs, Polly and Athena. She stays in close contact with her siblings, her 14 nieces and nephews, 40 great-nieces and -nephews, and three great-great-nephews. For fun, she reads novels by Sandra Brown, Danielle Steele, Robyn Carr, and others. She also enjoys crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and gardening.
Reflecting on her life, she says, “I figured if I went into the military, I could have money for an education; I would get a chance to travel and learn a trade. I did all of that, so I figure I accomplished it.”
Robert Naeye is a freelance journalist based in Derry Township. Please visit his website at www.robertnaeye.com.