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Honoring a hero, 31 years later

She saved several people from a fire in Vietnam in 1970. A month ago, she received the Soldier's Medal for Valor.

By BRADY DENNIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2001


She saved several people from a fire in Vietnam in 1970. A month ago, she received the Soldier's Medal for Valor.

WESLEY CHAPEL -- Karen Offutt isn't your typical grandma.

She wears a silver nose ring. She likes tie-dyed T-shirts.

A self-proclaimed hermit, she lives on a small patch of Wesley Chapel land with her two potbellied pigs, four dogs, six sugar gliders and a war chest full of memories.

Offutt is a Vietnam veteran. That, more than anything else, separates her from normal grandmothers.

But on April 7, she got a piece of hardware that separated her even more. More than 31 years after her 11-month tour of duty, she became possibly the first female veteran from Vietnam to receive the Soldier's Medal for Valor.

The medal, which requires the same degree of heroism as the Distinguished Flying Cross, is given to those who risk their lives in situations where an opposing army is not involved.

Offutt got the award for running barefoot into a burning Vietnamese hamlet near her barracks in Saigon on Jan. 24, 1970. She pulled out several adults and children who were trapped in their cardboard and beer can houses.

Back then, she received a "certificate of appreciation" for her bravery.

"When it came time for the presentation, they pulled me aside and said they didn't give the (Soldier's Medal) to women," Offutt said. "I was naive and young. And I didn't think I was a hero anyway."

Her road to heroism started with a decision to tread a path against which most of her peers rebelled.

"Everybody was protesting the war, so I decided I wanted to go and see what was going on for myself," she said. "I felt like the men were the only ones dying, and that wasn't right."

Offutt dropped out of nursing school and enlisted in the Army. She joined the Women's Army Corps, or WAC.

Veterans of Foreign Wars records indicate only about 1,200 women served in the war in roles other than as nurses. Of those, only about 700 were WACs.

Offutt was trained as a stenographer and worked at the Pentagon. In 1969, at 19 and just two years removed from her role as clarinet player in the Quartz Hill High School band in California, she flew to Long Binh, where the United States had a large base.

The first night she remembers as pure terror.

"You could just hear boom-boom-boom, all night long, and the beds were shaking and the walls were shaking, and I was just petrified," she told a St. Petersburg Times reporter last year, describing the mortar shells that erupted all around her.

She said it was then the reality of war settled upon her.

"I just lay there paralyzed," she said last week.

She later was reassigned to Saigon. Not long after her heroic rescue of the Vietnamese villagers, Offutt found herself heading back to the states.

Like many veterans, she never was the same.

There was no warm reception. No one wanted to talk about the war.

She had nightmares and eventually sought counseling. And then there was the lingering burden of guilt.

"I felt really guilty for coming home alive," Offutt said. "I still feel that way. I gladly would have carried a gun."

Back home, Offutt became a registered nurse. She married and had three children, all of whom, like their mother, have had complications from Agent Orange.

She later divorced and eventually retired to Wesley Chapel. She lives alone. She hangs out almost exclusively with Vietnam veterans, many of whom she met through the Internet.

Offutt authored a chapter in a book about women in Vietnam, called A Time to Remember. She also was featured in a documentary on women in the war called Vietnam: A Soldier's Story -- Women at War.

Despite being a hermit, she ventures out from time to time to attend reunions or talk to veterans groups, trying to raise awareness about the women who served.

That's exactly what she was doing April 7 at Edward Medard Park in Plant City.

To her surprise, State Rep. Mike Bilirakis presented her with the medal, the result of several friends who had lobbied the government to give her the award all these years later.

Because the Army doesn't record the gender of those who receive Soldier's Medals, there's no way to tell if Offutt is the only woman from that era to receive the award.

It didn't matter to her on April 7. Offutt -- a soft-spoken teenager turned thick-skinned and cynical by the war -- wept.

"I just stood there and cried. It's been 31 years," she said. "It was so nice. It was a step forward for women who were there and didn't get honored."

- Brady Dennis covers the city of Zephyrhills and police news in east Pasco. His phone number is (352) 521-5757, ext. 23.

-- Discuss this and other issues at our Web forum at www.sptimes.com/pascoforum.

On the Web

To read more about Karen Offutt's story or various poems she has written about her experiences, visit http://walkwithme.netfirms.com.

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