For over 40 years, Paula Rosenbaum hasn’t been able to stand the sight of roses.
They remind her of a long ago Valentine’s Day when her husband Fred was a young serviceman in Vietnam.
“Fred never forgot my birthday, never forget Valentine’s Day,” Paula Rosenbaum said.
He ordered the roses for Paula before he was deployed.
“He paid for the roses before he left on Feb. 1,” Rosenbaum said. “They were delivered on Feb. 14, and when I took out the card and saw his handwriting on it, it broke my heart. I couldn’t even look at those roses. I gave them to one of my neighbors.”
Rosenbaum and her friend Maxine Cole are wives of men who served in Vietnam.
Both credit their families and friends with helping them survive their husband’s deployments.
There were bad times — television news stories broadcasting each day’s fatality numbers, horrifying newspaper photos of casualties and a barrage of long-haired protesters walking the streets preaching love and peace.
But as far as many Americans were concerned, hippy protesters represented anything but love. For many, especially the families of soldiers, war protests helped foster hatred and intolerance.
Rosenbaum was a student at Oklahoma College for Women in Chickasha, Okla. when she met her future husband.
She had a date with one of Fred’s friends who she said “had a cool car,” a Ford Sunliner convertible.
Fred, a Panhandle A&M ROTC student, didn’t have a cool car, but called Paula anyway. She was home from college.
They dated, fell in love and married.
Maxine Cole met her husband Stephen “Steve” Cole while Steve was with a group of friends at a drive-in movie.
Steve was an Army PFC with the 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Armored Division.
“A friend introduced us and I think it was love at first sight,” Maxine Cole said. “We tried to get together for a month. One night I came out of church and he was standing on the steps...He was handsome. He looked like Elvis.”
Cole said she called her mother for permission to get a Coke with Steve and his friends and their romance bloomed.
By the time Steve was deployed, years later, he and Maxine were married and had four children.
They lived on Army bases during Steve’s time in Vietnam.
Fear and longing for her husband were part of her daily life, but Cole said she didn’t get discouraged. There was too much to do.
“I kept the house clean, I kept the kids’ noses clean. (During Steve’s second deployment), we went back to Fort Sill in Lawton. That’s where we lived before, and the kids went to the same school. It helped being in familiar places,” she said.
Like their husbands, the wives banded together to survive.
“We did things like a family,” Cole said. “There was a little lake in Lawton with ducks and a playground for the kids and we’d go there. We’d also take the kids fishing. We spent a lot of time there.”
The couple frequently exchanged letters.
“I’d try to write every day,” Cole said. “and the kids would send Steve tapes asking him questions. He’d answer their questions and send the tapes back.”
Maxine Cole helped set up a library at her kids’ school and was a parttime librarian.
She also bowled, but admits she wasn’t a champion.
“It was fun. It was just something to do. I actually substituted for some of the bowlers in the league a few times,” she said.
Like other military couples, the Coles had a brief reunion in Hawaii before Steve finished one of his tours.
The R & R respite was “wonderful” Cole said.
“I hadn’t heard from him in 17 days. My mother was going to take care of the kids while I was gone. She said, ‘What if he’s not there?’’ Cole recalled. “I said, ‘He’ll be there.’”
Cole said she didn’t recognize her husband when she saw him.
“He had lost 30 pounds,” she said.
Rosenbaum said when it was time for her a similar reunion with Fred in Hawaii, he, who had arrived a little earlier, didn’t recognize his wife.
“I had long hair when he left, and I’d cut it,” she said. “Momma said it would make me feel better. I chased him around a fountain (in Hawaii) until somebody went up to him and said, ‘I think that woman is looking for you.’”
Rosenbaum said she and Fred lived in Germany prior to Fred’s deployment.
They’d only been back in the U.S. for about a month when he was sent to Vietnam.
“I lived with my parents and that was good because I hadn’t seen them in three years,” she said.
The couple also had an 18-month-old daughter, Sandra.
“My parents got to see their granddaughter,” she said.
Sandra was so little, she didn’t understand why her father wasn’t there, Paula said.
“We’d ask her where daddy was and she’d go get his tennis shoes. The only thing she knew about him was a pair of shoes,” Paula said.
Like Maxine, Paula said it was impossible to avoid worrying about her husband.
“We’d sit down to eat and I’d wonder if Fred was hungry. I’d get a glass of water and wonder if he was thirsty,” she said.
Both Steve Cole and Fred Rosenbaum were wounded and received Purple Hearts for their service in Vietnam.
In the Rosenbaum’s case military officials came to Paula’s parents’ home to let her know Fred was wounded. She remembers seeing the men arrive. She was too afraid to answer the door.
“I was in the kitchen when two (military) guys drove up in a car with flags on it,” she said. “Daddy went to the door. I thought they meant Fred had died. Then they told me he’d been wounded.”
Fear and loneliness weren’t the only challenges Vietnam wives faced, the women noted.
The war in Southeast Asia stirred fierce emotions. Anti-war sentiments were especially strong among some educators.
Cole said her political views earned her a failing grade on a persuasive paper she wrote in support of the Vietnam War.
“My teacher was very liberal,” she said. “Her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend had marched in Oklahoma City as hippies. The rest of the class critiqued my work, and said it was top notch so when my teacher gave me a failing grade, I went to her and talked to her about it. She changed my grade to a C,” Cole said.
Rosenbaum said the demonstrations and other protests against the war were destructive. Remembering her experience as the wife of a soldier, she said she goes out of her way to thank veterans, especially those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“If I’m at the (veterans) hospital and I see a soldier, I go up and shake his hand. We weren’t treated like that and it hurt,” she said.
She also said she’s heard some mothers say they wouldn’t allow their sons and daughters to serve in the military.
“I ask them what they would do if (their son or daughter) wanted to be a police officer or a firefighter,” she said. “Those are dangerous jobs, too. But I think you should stand up for what you believe. You have to take your chances. Anything that’s worth anything is worth standing up for.”
Rosenbaum and Cole said their husbands’ military service changed them in countless ways.
“It’s made me appreciate Fred. I learned not to take things for granted,” she said.
Cole said her experiences helped her value everything that’s precious about life.
“You learn what’s important,” she said.
Paula and Fred kept up a prodigious correspondence during the war.
She still has the letters, but admits she doesn’t look at them. They are a part of the couple’s love story that is both poignant and private.
“I read them once,” she said. “Then I told my daughter to burn them when her father and I are gone,” she said.