Vietnam era veteran Helen Gillespie marched to a different drummer – literally.
She joined the Women’s Army Corps on Sept. 9, 1971, for money to go to college during an unpopular time for the nation’s military while waging a controversial war in Southeast Asia. She was a tuba player in the 14th Army Band WAC from 1971-74 at Fort McClellan. She served with clarinet player Jeanne Pace who retired July 10 at Fort Hood, Texas, as a chief warrant officer 5 with 43 years of active duty service. Pace was the longest-tenured female warrant officer and the last former member of the WAC on active duty.
Gillespie retired as a sergeant first class in 2009 with 23 years of service, including nine on active duty. She served a year in Iraq in 2004-05.
“One thing I learned strongly was how important support systems are in any war effort, whether it was the Cold War, whether it was Vietnam which I think was unpopular from the beginning,” said Gillespie, co-owner of A Cup of Everything coffee shop-plus on North Side Square downtown along with co-owner Cathy Lamberth. “The support system in every war operation is as important as the warfighters themselves.”
She saw the support systems evolve as dramatically as the nation’s attitudes toward the military and women’s role in the military.
“In the Vietnam era we didn’t have the multitude of support systems that we have now, either on an individual basis or in a group,” Gillespie said. “It’s so much better now.”
She remembers the antiwar, anti-military sentiment that seemed rampant in the 1970s, especially on college campuses. In 1976 at the University of Florida, Gillespie was among the participants in a weekly meeting of students going through elementary education. As a member of the National Guard, she was a recruiter as a secondary duty. In her student support group, she volunteered to give a presentation about the National Guard.
Gillespie completed her presentation and invited questions from her classmates. Another young woman, a fellow student, asked her if there was a riot at the University of Florida would she be on the side of the rioters or would she follow orders with the National Guard.
“I said ‘I’m in the National Guard, I would follow orders of the National Guard,’” Gillespie recalled. “I just don’t remember much conversation after the lady, the fellow student, asked about that and I gave my honest answer. I guess I’m too honest sometimes. I should’ve danced around that.”
Gillespie, 62, endured stressful times within the ranks of the military as well. She remembers hearing disparaging remarks about women from other members of the National Guard. She was the first female Soldier in the National Guard’s 613th Maintenance unit in Starke, Florida. She served there from 1974-77 as a specialist 4. She received a bachelor’s in elementary education in 1977 from the University of Florida. After a break in service, she re-entered the Army in 1981 as a print journalist. She was called to active duty in 2004 as a journalist for Task Force 44th MEDCOM and served in Iraq from October 2004 until October 2005.
She spent a year on active duty with health affairs at the Pentagon in 2008 and retired in 2009 from a National Guard public affairs unit in Nashville.
The Miami, Florida, native plays tuba in the Huntsville Concert Band. She is a member of the Huntsville Chapter 1067 of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
Gillespie welcomes this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“It was needed,” she said. “I wish more could’ve been done back in the day. I have the highest respect for the brothers and sisters that were in country trying to fight an unpopular war because these were people that didn’t go to Canada. And they just blindly followed orders of selfless service.”
Editor’s note: This is the 28th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.