By Esmeralda Treviño
Claire Starnes initially joined the U.S. Army as a means of escape from everyday life. Born in Biddeford, Maine, in 1944, she enlisted in 1963 and completed basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama.
At first, Starnes did not meet the Army’s weight requirement and had to eat bananas until she gained enough weight to enlist.
“I enlisted because I wanted to explore the world and I never wanted to see my boyfriend, who I had just broken up with, again,” Starnes recalled as she tugged at her leather biker vest.
In 1969, she volunteered to go to Vietnam as one of more than 1,000 U.S. military women – other than nurses – who served there between 1962 and 1973.
“Arriving in Vietnam is like arriving nowhere else,” said Starnes, who worked as a photojournalist throughout her station and went on to become a communications specialist for the Army. “The first thing that hits you is the extreme humidity, along with the different smells.”
Five years after her service ended in June 1973, Starnes enrolled at The University of Texas at El Paso so she could get a degree in the field where she had the most experience: mass communications. She worked at the University’s radio station, KTEP-FM (88.5) and The Prospector student newspaper.
“Some of my favorite memories are from my time with Chi Gamma Iota,” Starnes recalled of the organization that provided support to former service personnel. “I felt at home with the veterans and am still in touch with many of them.”
Starnes earned a bachelor’s degree from UTEP in 1981. Upon graduating, she became editor at Fort Bliss Ordnance Magazine. Later, she collaborated with Vietnam veteran Donna Lowery and others to find military women who served on the ground in Vietnam and create the book “Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories.”
“We want to bring meaning to what these women did,” Starnes said. “Hopefully we will be recognized and be put in a history book.”