Barbara Bitgood Sebring
U.S. Navy, WAVES, Hospital Corpsman – E-3
Vietnam War (1962-1964)
Not all women wore love beads in the Sixties. Many women, like Barbara Bitgood Sebring, served our country during the Vietnam War and proudly wore dog tags around their neck. The service of these women, however, went mostly unheralded. While the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs knows exactly how many men served in Vietnam, no official record was kept regarding women serving during Vietnam. Despite the lack of recognition and the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, women like Barbara Bitgood Sebring, are proud to have served their country.
Barbara Bitgood grew up in the small town of Hope Valley, Rhode Island. Bitgood was born on June 7, 1944 in Westerly, Rhode Island. The Bitgood family was very patriotic. Bitgood’s father had served in the Navy and was active in the local American Legion Post. Bitgood’s mother was active in the local Legion’s Auxiliary and recruited the Bitgood children to participate in all Legion activities, support the local veterans and tend veteran’s graves. As a young child, Barbara Bitgood dreamed of joining WAVES, Women Accepted For Voluntary Emergency Services. In fact, one of Bitgood’s childhood mentors, her 1st grade teacher, had served in the WAVES during World War II. According to Bitgood, she just knew that joining WAVES was “what she wanted to do when she grew up”. The WAVES were instituted in 1942 during World War II, as a female only division of the U.S. Navy. The word “emergency” implied that the acceptance of women was due to the unusual circumstances of the war. Women served stateside, so men could be released to serve overseas. During World War II, WAVES did clerical work, held positions within the aviation community, served as Judge Advocate General’s Corps, worked in the medical field, communications, intelligence and science and technology. In the Vietnam era, however, WAVES worked in every capacity within the Navy from air traffic controller to radar to serving in country. The only thing a WAVE was not allowed to do was participate in combat or carry a weapon.
After graduating from high school at the age of eighteen, and with no real work experience, Bitgood enlisted in the Navy WAVES in June, 1962. Although Bitgood’s family wanted her to attended college, they understood and supported her decision to enlist. Bitgood chose to enlist in the Navy, as opposed to another branch of the military, because of her father’s prior service in the Navy. Bitgood was not overly concerned about the conflict in Vietnam at the time of enlisting. In 1962, nobody seemed to be concerned about being sent to Vietnam. The initial fear was Guantanamo Bay. Later, however, as the conflict grew, the U. S. involvement in Vietnam grew along with the apprehension of Americans.
In September 1962, Bitgood was sent to Bainbridge, Maryland for basic training as a hospital corpsman in the WAVES. According to Bitgood, “she loved it”. Basic training consisted of learning to march, swimming, passing a swimming test to graduate, and naval history courses. The training was taken seriously and Bitgood felt it was effective. Bitgood also stated, the WAVES “really had to tow the line and were very disciplined”. “We were up at the crack of dawn, and went to bed early. We had to maintain laundry, beds had to be made a specific way and it was very regimented”, exclaimed Bitgood. Overall, Bitgood thought it was just enjoyable. She felt she was able to cope with basic training because she was basically a tomboy growing up and an active young woman. This came in very handy with all aspects of training. At Bainbridge, the women did not train with the men and were always kept separate. All superior officers were women, the women were housed together and trained together. Even in the mess hall, the women were not allowed to speak to the men. If you wanted certain food in the chow line, you couldn’t ask the men serving for anything. You were only allowed to signal yes or no using a forward or backwards motion with your tray. The women were kept separate and treated unequally, as Bitgood would later discover. Bitgood never knew why the women were kept separated and were not allowed to talk to the men. She just accepted it as a part of military life.
After completion of basic training, Bitgood was given an aptitude test and it was determined she would be a hospital corpsman. A hospital corpsman is an enlisted medical specialist in the Navy. Hospital corpsman worked in different capacities and locations during the Vietnam War including: stateside hospitals, aboard ships, and as the primary medical caregivers for naval personnel in Vietnam. Hospital corpsman also assisted in the prevention and treatment of diseases, functioned as clinical or specialty technicians, medical administrative personnel, as well as battlefield corpsman with the Marine Corps providing medical treatment in combat environments. In December 1962, Bitgood was sent for specialty training at the Naval Hospital Corps School in Great Lakes, Illinois. The focus of this specialty training is medical training, sanitation and public health. While in Hospital Corps School, Bitgood was trained by a chief in charge of her company. In addition, a registered nurse oversaw the entire company. Bitgood received specialty training in Great Lakes from December 1962 to April 1963. While training in Great Lakes, Bitgood commented about the terrible harassment and sexual discrimination she and other women suffered at the Naval Hospital Corps School. Bitgood felt she was treated unfairly and was verbally abused by the men on a regular basis. This discrimination was one of the toughest parts of her service. However, not all men were abusive at Great Lakes. Bitgood met her husband to be, Garry Sebring, at Great Lakes.
After graduating from Hospital Corps School, Bitgood was assigned to the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, California. Bitgood was initially intimidated by her assignment. The hospital was very large and the Chief did not like women and made sure they all knew it. Bitgood was assigned to a civilian ward at the hospital. She was the only corps person to be assigned to the ward and Bitgood worked exclusively with civilians. After a short while, Bitgood fell absolutely in love with California. While at Balboa Naval Hospital, Bitgood lived in the barracks on base with two women to a room. She ate all meals in the mess hall and the food was very good. For entertainment, Bitgood visited the nearby Balboa Zoo, and downtown area which was very close. Bitgood felt her service at Balboa Naval Hospital was effective. All the young women in the WAVES were happy, worked hard and were effective in their service. Bitgood felt she worked with a nice group of young women that worked well together and all got along. Bitgood had little interaction with the Commanding Officers or superiors on the base. She felt she received equal pay for equal work. Bitgood’s highest rank was as an E-3. Bitgood coped with her service and the discrimination on the base by just doing her job. She felt she was always motivated to keep going. According to Bitgood, “you are always motivated in the military to do the best you can and keep going”.
During Bitgood’s first leave, she married Garry Sebring, who was a Beach Jumper stationed at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California. Again Bitgood was discriminated against in trying to make plans for her wedding and coordinating leave with her soon to be husband. Despite the lack of cooperation by the Navy, Bitgood and Sebring were married. Bitgood was now known as Barbara Sebring. Sebring continued to serve in the WAVES at Balboa Naval Hospital until she became pregnant with her first child in 1964. Sebring was forced to retire from the military since women were not allowed to serve at that time if they were pregnant. Sebring had very mixed emotions about her discharge from the Navy. While she was happy to be married and starting a family, Sebring was sad to have to leave the Navy. It was her dream career and it only lasted two years. Shortly after Sebring’s discharge, her husband was shipped out to Vietnam. Sebring returned home to her family in Rhode Island to have her baby and wait for her husband’s return from Vietnam. When Garry Sebring returned to Coronado to finish out his service, Barbara joined him with their baby.
The discrimination Barbara Bitgood Sebring experienced in the military was not limited to the time she served. After her discharge from the WAVES, Sebring attempted to attend college using the GI Bill. However, women at that time were not given full benefits and the same treatment as men. While men received sufficient funds to pay for school and their dependents while attending school, women only received money for tuition. Sebring had a young baby at home and a husband still in the service. Without the additional funds for her dependent child, Sebring was unable to pursue a college education. Later, Sebring would join other women in a Class Action lawsuit against the military for equal rights under the GI Bill. Although the lawsuit was eventually won, it was too late for Sebring to return to school. Today, Sebring resides in San Rafael, California with her husband Garry. Together they run a successful manufacturing representative business that they have owned and operated for thirty five years.
Sebring still keeps in touch with several of the women she met in the WAVES during basic training and Hospital Corps School. She is also a member of WAVES National and the current Public Relations Chair. Sebring is also the President of the local chapter of WAVES, Redwood Empire, Unit #77. Sebring regularly attends WAVES National reunions and is a proud veteran of the Women Accepted For Voluntary Emergency Services during the Vietnam War. Sebring feels that her service in WAVES “gave her the confidence to go out and meet people and speak in public”. She doesn’t believe that she could do that if she hadn’t joined the military. Sebring also feels that her service was justified and “anyone that serves, their sacrifice is justified just by the fact that they are serving their country”. The toughest moment for Sebring in the military was enduring the discrimination throughout her service. Sebring would like people to know that women were discriminated against in the military during the Vietnam War. “Women have the right to serve and not be discriminated against”, exclaims Sebring.
Sebring states, “being in the military and WAVES was just a lifelong dream”. She would like people to remember that the men and women that served during the Vietnam War were just doing their jobs, what they were told to do, and doing what they were trained to do. Sebring’s advice for young men and women contemplating military service today is to: “Go For It”. Sebring further advised that if a young person wishes to serve, it is a golden opportunity. Now with the GI Bill that you can use afterwards, the military is a golden opportunity for anyone. “I think the military presents a great opportunity for personal growth”, opines Sebring. You can learn so much in the military: discipline, honor, and duty that it is just a golden opportunity for people. Barbara Bitgood Sebring indicated that she would serve in the military and the WAVES all over again if she had the opportunity. Although Sebring’s generation was not the first to serve in the military, they all did their part, and served with dignity and honor. I can’t imagine the proud women of the Vietnam era WAVES wearing any other beads, other than the beads of their dog tags.
Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on June 14, 2011