written by Daria Sommers
The VBC got to know writer and filmmaker Daria Sommers through her award-winning feature-length documentary Lioness, which tells the story of a group of female Army support soldiers who were part of the first program in American history to send women into direct ground combat. We screened the film and hosted a conversation with Daria and veterans from the original Lioness team on June 12, Women’s Veterans Day. Daria worked with the VBC’s Shaun Hall to create Lioness: The Origin Story Podcast series. Below, Daria tells her personal story of growing up in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Her recently completed novel, Sawadika American Girl, is a fictional coming-of-age saga set in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968. See more of Daria’s work at dariasommers.com.
It was 1963 when Vietnam first tattooed itself into my memory. I was six years old. My siblings and I were seated on the living room sofa in our suburban New Jersey ranch house when my father, staring down at us, announced he was done being a town manager and had taken a job with the State Department. We’re moving to Saigon, he said. The capital of a country called Vietnam. He explained his new job at length. Not much registered except that we had to get lots of shots and Vietnam was an underdeveloped country that needed America’s help.
“What’s underdeveloped?” I asked.
“They don’t have the modern conveniences we have,” my father responded.
“What about bathtubs? Do they have bathtubs? Will I be able to take bubble baths?”
“Don’t worry,” my mother placated. “It will all work out.”
That was her answer to everything.
Whether it was the influence of National Geographic Magazine pictures or wacky Saturday morning cartoons, I’ll never know, but my wee brain concluded with precocious certainty that bathtubs in an ‘underdeveloped’ country must be made of mud. The image I conjured is as crisp today as it was back then. A reddish brown tub, dusty to the touch but remarkably solid. I don’t recall being upset about leaving New Jersey but the question of whether Vietnam’s mud bathtubs would turn my Mr. Bubble bubble bath brown or leave it white and fluffy troubled me endlessly.
Two months later, across the Pacific, my concerns evaporated. Our new house, a mansion compared to our New Jersey home, had six bedrooms, five bathrooms (four with shiny new ceramic bathtubs), a twenty-foot stocked fishpond, an outdoor aviary, extensive servants’ quarters, a spacious yard, and a large swimming pool shared with our landlord.
Daria’s Bangkok home, 1963 (Daria Sommers)
It just wasn’t in Saigon. A last minute change of plan sent my father to Bangkok, Thailand. Another ‘underdeveloped’ country near Vietnam that also needed America’s help. That’s how my father described it. The switch didn’t seem to upset him. His nonchalance made me think the two countries were interchangeable.
Years later, I learned about the tragic event that precipitated my father’s reassignment. I was fifteen and had begun to glimpse the bigger picture. How America’s presence in Thailand was feeding the war effort in Vietnam. How the policies that enabled my fantastical childhood were responsible for inflicting brutal devastation on a country for reasons that, in 1972, no one even bothered to pretend were true. But in 1963, that future wasn’t on anyone’s radar and would have been, in any case, well beyond my six-year-old grasp.
My early years in Bangkok were wonderous in their extremes. Despite the heat and language barrier, life was all-consuming. Each day opened up new dimensions of experience. In the cool of morning’s first light, monks stopped by for food. Water buffalo sometimes followed. The soft knocking of their wooden cowbells made for the kindest wakeup call. At Ruam Rudee, the Catholic Missionary school I attended, my new friends were from around the world: Japan, Pakistan, Egypt, Taiwan, Italy, Switzerland.
One of my teachers was Sister Elizabeth, a French nun whose white habit hid all but her ancient, sweating face. Another teacher, Mrs. Mohan from Sri Lanka, mesmerized me with her colorful saris.
Daria as Thai Dancer, 1964 (Daria Sommers)
After school, I took ballet, horseback riding and piano lessons. My mother had a dressmaker create clothes to our specifications. Anything I wanted. I learned to swim and play tennis at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. We attended Sunday Mass in a Church that looked like a Buddhist temple. Afterwards, my parents packed us into our giant Plymouth station wagon to visit actual Buddhist temples.
During monsoon season, fish swam through our flooded kitchen. In the dry season, I stayed off the grass because of pit vipers. After getting attacked by a swarm of red ants, I stayed away from bushes too. Once, walking home from a friend’s house, I froze. A long, thick snake I thought was a cobra was slowly slinking across the road. I was more fascinated than scared.
Snakes were a fact of life. On holidays, my father invited the local snake charmer, an Indian man with a beaming, nicotine-soaked smile, to stop by. When he played his flute two, sometimes three, cobras rose up from wicker baskets. With their hoods open they swayed to his eerie music.
I often accompanied my mother on her visits to Bangkok’s numerous markets. She liked the lesser-known places where few farangs (foreigners) ventured. The finds were better, so were the prices. At the Woeng Nakhon Khasem, popularly known as the “Thieves Market,” the stares directed our way were unpleasant reminders that as much as I loved living in Thailand and had begun to think of it as home, I was and would always be an outsider.
* * *
In 1965, my world changed. Overnight, our neighborhood filled with so many American families that trick or treating on Halloween became worthwhile.
Many were transplants from Saigon which was no longer safe for dependents. The others had fathers who worked for the US Mission, USAID, CIA, the military or as contract workers. The number of U.S. military personnel around town multiplied. So did the nightclubs, massage parlors and bargirls catering to American servicemen. Hotels welcoming GIs on R&R from Vietnam mushroomed in tandem: The Prince. The Florida. The Swan. The Honey. The Grace. The list went on.
In a city dense with aromas, even I caught whiff of the darkness these changes signaled.
By 1966, adults talked more openly of the fighting in Vietnam. My father made a number of trips there. When I asked him about it, he didn’t mince words.
“It’s more than a conflict,” he said. “American soldiers are fighting to stop the Communist North Vietnamese from taking over South Vietnam. It’s a war I think we can win. Even Thailand is under threat. I’ve got projects in the Northeast meant to counter the Pathet Lao insurgency along the Laotian border.”
At ten, I’d learned to listen. My father’s words were Gospel.
Emboldened by his fervor, I wanted to meet those fighting this war.
On Saturdays, I slipped away (easy to do since I was now one of six kids) and rode my bike to nearby R&R hotels. Standing at the entrance, I asked random GIs to buy me a hamburger. Most laughed at the sight of me. But a few times, big brother types, indulged me.
Halloween in Bangkok, 1965 (Daria Sommers)
Danny and Coop are the guys I remember. They were returning from a sightseeing tour when I accosted them. The food was good, our conversation light and teasing.
Where are you from? No, you go first.
What is Arkansas like?
Do your parents know where you are?
Yes, we go trick or treating here. Last year I dressed up as a clown.
A clown? You like living in Bangkok?
They refused to believe me when I said I never wanted to leave. They must have found me amusing because they ordered another round of French fries. But curiosity inevitably trampled my good sense, and I pointedly asked Danny, who’d mentioned being in the jungles, if he’d ever killed anyone.
The table went silent. The mood changed. Coop put his arm around the back of my chair, leaned in close, sighed, and in a church whisper said, “That’s not a question you should ask. Ever.”
I put down my half-eaten hamburger and stared at it in shame.
I had my answer, and it felt horrible.
* * *
In 1969, my father’s tour in Thailand ended. I was almost thirteen and heartbroken. Wherever we ended up next, it would never compare. Plus, I hated the idea of starting over.
After a few months in the States, the posting my father wanted, Rio de Janeiro, was denied. Another last minute change. The Saigon desk wanted him for the Civil Operations and Rural Support (CORDS) program, a joint military-civilian effort to get rural populations to support the South Vietnamese government. “Pacify the peasants” was the idea. Because of the war, my father’s orders were non-negotiable. Vietnam or resign. As a civil servant with six children, he accepted the assignment.
That’s how, in 1972, at the age of 15, I ended up in Saigon.
My mom and us kids occupied another palatial house in Bangkok while my father took an apartment in Saigon’s Red Light district. We looked forward to his monthly visits with Christmas-level excitement. His high-energy presence was the glue that held our divided world together. When ‘safe weekends’ were declared, my mom was only too happy to ship one or two of us off to him.
Daria with father, Pattaya, Thailand, 1973 (Daria Sommers)
By now, I’d read all about the anti-war movement. A poster on my wall said, ‘Make Love, Not War.’ I wore a string of rawhide around my forehead, covered my arms in Indian bangles and lined my eyelids with kohl. On the one hand, I was against the war. On the other, I believed in my father. Working with rural populations was his strength. If anyone could make a positive difference, it was him. He’d never doubted himself, so why should I? I didn’t see my position as a contradiction. It was how I made sense of my world.
There were only three passengers on my Saturday morning Air Vietnam flight to Saigon. During our descent into Tan Son Nhut Airbase, I counted bomb craters. Taxiing up to the terminal, I scanned planes, helicopters, sandbags, barbed wire, and enormous guns hanging from shoulders of stern-faced soldiers. The charged atmosphere put me on edge.
The sight of my father just outside the terminal – smiling, waving, happy to see me – calmed me. He whisked me through security, and we were off. Brunch at the Continental Palace Hotel was followed by a drive into the countryside to tour an old lacquer factory. Somehow my father knew the owner. After watching the artisans at work, we were served refreshments and the owner gifted me a wine and gold colored jewelry box. Aside from the candied gasoline smell, it was all weirdly normal.
Then, on the drive back, we passed two dead bodies on the road. Young Vietnamese. They looked like boys. Neither of us said anything.
Before dinner at House of the Seven Beefs, we had drinks on my father’s balcony. I tried to keep my eye-rolling to a minimum while he subjected me to yet another round of questions about school, grades, and my piano lessons.
Then he went quiet.
In the distance, smoky black plumes from dropped bombs curled up into the early evening sky.
“How’s it all going?” I asked. He swirled the ice cubes in his scotch glass before emptying it. Minutes passed. His expression twisted into discord. I could feel him sinking.
“I don’t know if you remember,” he said in a monotone so subdued I had to move my chair closer to his, “but we almost came here in ’63. An old friend was an early advisor here. Great guy. Brilliant, too. He convinced me to join USAID and come work for him. At the time, it all seemed possible. A month or so before we were to arrive, he and his interpreter met with a village headman to discuss aid projects. Turned out to be a VC set-up. They were both killed.”
The moment turned suddenly fragile. An old injury resurrected into a fresh wound. “That’s so sad,” I murmured.
“It’s more than sad,” my father added bitterly, shaking his head. “It’s a waste. This whole thing,” he continued, swatting his hand against the dirty pink sky, “is nothing but a senseless, tragic waste. We shouldn’t be here. We never should have come.”
We sat there until sunset. He with his anguish, me with mine.
* * *
In the fall of 1975, five months after the Fall of Saigon, I started college. My father was stationed in the Philippines with my mom and younger siblings in tow.
Where are you from? became a question I hated.
At first, I answered truthfully, even explaining my father’s work. My eagerness to defend his honest desire to improve lives was naïve. I didn’t anticipate the backlash. More often than not, someone saw fit to condemn my father and by extension me.
USAID was part of an immoral war.
American advisors were fat cats living large.
Nice that you had such a great time while so many people died.
I understood where they were coming from. I recognized the truth behind their words. But I silently raged at how easily they denounced me and my family when they knew nothing about us. I started telling everyone I was from New Jersey, sharing the truth with only my closest friends. Even then, I was selective about what I said. By the time graduation came, I’d become expert at circumventing certain facts of my childhood and sometimes my whole background. So much of what made me who I am was hidden away like contraband.
The evening I spent with my father on his Saigon balcony, sequestered in the folds of my memory for so long, burst back into my consciousness in the spring of 2008 through a chain of events I could never have predicted.
* * *
After graduating college, I’d gone on to become a writer and filmmaker and by the 1990s, I was living in New York.
I was there on 9/11 when the Twin Towers fell. I wanted nothing more than to bring those behind it to justice.
Film poster for Lioness
But then, in the spring of 2003, like many Americans, especially those who’d lived through some version of the war in Vietnam, I found the invasion of Iraq more than unsettling.
So did my father. We followed the developments in Iraq obsessively. The threat of a Vietnam-style quagmire shadowed our endless discussions. When I told him I was considering making a film about a group of Army women who were serving in combat in Iraq without formal recognition and in defiance of DoD policy, he couldn’t have been more supportive. As my filmmaking colleague and I navigated the uphill battle of funding and permissions to make it happen, my father’s belief in our efforts was unflinching.
Lioness, our feature documentary, received its US premiere at the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, North Carolina. The film focused on five women – Army support soldiers – who were attached to an all-male Marine combat unit to defuse tensions with Iraqi women and children during house to house searches.
In 2004, with the rise of the insurgency, these women, without the proper training, ended up fighting in some of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war. Left out of the media’s accounts, they returned home to a society that was both ignorant of the role they played and ill-equipped to give them the healthcare benefits and support they needed. While the film didn’t take a position on the Iraq war, it did reveal the disconnect between the boots-on-the-ground reality in Iraq and the public’s perception back home.
Lioness women addressing House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, 2009 (Daria Sommers)
I was buoyed by the film’s reception in the media and the big crowd at our Full Frame screening. But mostly I was thrilled that the Lioness women’s stories were finally receiving public acknowledgement.
After a lively Q&A, a woman came up and took my hand. Her face red with emotion, her eyes teary, she thanked me for making the film. She explained that she had been an Army nurse in Vietnam assigned to a field hospital. Like the Lioness soldiers, she’d felt invisible when she returned home.
As she detailed her experience – a year of near daily trauma, working to save young men with mangled bodies and wounded psyches – her anguish was palpable. The film’s recognition of the Lioness women, she said, made her feel seen. I clasped her hands with both of mine. My voice cracked when I thanked her for her kind words.
That night I couldn’t sleep. Meeting that nurse, listening to her story, provoked something in me. My thoughts shuffled back and forth like a deck of cards, returning me to that evening with my father in Saigon, to his anguish, to the sting of accusations at college, to that hidden part of me. Decades later, the hurt was still there, the guilt too.
Shannon Morgan (l) and Peggy Mikelonis (r) represent two generations of Army veterans. Shannon served as a Lioness in Afghanistan, and Peggy as an Army nurse in Vietnam. Peggy has been at the forefront of the network of women Vietnam Veterans supporting post-9/11 women veterans.
I replayed my answer to an audience member’s question of why I made this film. To make sure the Lioness soldiers’ stories were heard. True but on a deeper, personal level, making this film offered me a degree of catharsis, soothing my inability to reckon directly with my own story.
After its national broadcast on PBS in 2009, Lioness screenings continued at women veterans’ events, military healthcare conferences, VFW posts, VA hospitals, veteran community centers, and educational centers around the country. Special screenings were also held on Capitol Hill and at DoD. The film served as an alarm bell for much-needed changes to healthcare services for women veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This effort was spearheaded, in large part, by a network of women Vietnam veterans, most of them nurses, who, during the 1980s and 1990s, began the fight for gender equity in the veterans’ community at large and at the VA in particular.
I attended most of these screenings and, in the process, got to know many of the women who’d served as nurses in Vietnam. Over conference dinners, late night drinks and car rides, they shared their individual experiences with me and, without filtering myself, I started sharing the details of my life in Thailand, my father’s two tours in Vietnam and my time in Saigon with them.
While my stories were inconsequential compared to theirs, simply being with them helped me feel like less of an outcast. My childhood wasn’t contraband. It was just my childhood. No one was judging.
By 2015, I had moved on to other projects and was surprised when I received an email from Diane Carlson Evans, founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, inviting me to speak at the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial, The Wall, on Veterans Day. I was overwhelmed by the honor, plagued by impostor syndrome, and immediately said yes.
That November 11 was clear blue and crisply cool. With the names of those lost carved on The Wall behind me and the faces of those who survived in front of me, I told my story.