Whether it be paying strippers, putting up with unwanted advances or watching alcohol-induced roughhousing — as the head of the officers club and one of a few women on the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand — Lake Oswego resident Angelica Pilato wasn't comfortable with everything she experienced during the Vietnam War. But she viewed providing an escape for men risking their lives for their country as her duty.
U.S. Air Force, 1967-72
"I was a support person and I was in charge of morale, and I did my job," she said.
Pilato was one of just thousands of American women (compared to millions of men) who served in the Vietnam War and was the only female club officer in the Air Force at the time. She went on to write a book, "Angel's Truck Stop," that delves into both the rowdy atmosphere of the club and the perils of trying to boost morale amid perpetual tragedy.
Pilato signed up for the Air Force while working on her master's degree in food management largely because of a sense of patriotic duty. And her expertise in food management helped land her a unique position: as an assistant at an officers club at a base in Omaha, Nebraska. Officers clubs were akin to country clubs: respites for officers to eat, drink and relax.
Pilato said her first boss was shocked that the Air Force sent a woman to be his assistant while her second boss sent her to another unit to punch numbers instead of working for the club. Nevertheless, Pilato proved her worth and went on to run clubs at bases in Germany and Spain for over three years.
Though public opinion of the Vietnam War began to deteriorate in the late 1960s in the United States, Pilato was enthusiastic about playing a more direct role in the war effort during that time. So she volunteered to run an officers club at the Udorn base in northern Thailand in 1971.
"When you're in the military you're under this bubble of information," Pilato said.
Because officers' wives and children often were with them in Germany and Spain, Pilato said, the clubs were generally civilized. However, Thailand was a different story. During her tour of the base, she was shocked to find topless women dancing on the barb. The club also hired local women as strippers and go-go dancers to entertain the men.
"It was very uncomfortable for me," Pilato said. "I didn't expect this."
Pilato quickly learned that the officers were worried she would put an end to their excesses. Overwhelmingly outnumbered and wanting to show that she wasn't as prudish as they might have assumed, Pilato decided she would be in charge of morale, not morals — as she put it.
"I did my job and I didn't change anything. I hired the strippers for Saturday night. Then the guys thought I was one of the boys," she said.
Pilato said she was not sexually assaulted but was frequently harassed. Men, some in high-ranking positions, asked her to expose herself and sleep with them.
"When people asked me early on (after the war), 'Were you harassed? I said, no, I wasn't harassed," she said. "But then I got to thinking about it and, yeah, I was harassed all the time."
Nevertheless, Pilato grew to admire the officers on the base who were tasked with flying over Laos and into Hanoi to bomb the Northern Vietnamese military.
"I had and I have the utmost respect for those men. They went into harm's way every day," she said. "They came into my bar and then they were dead the next day."
And along with the catcallers, Pilato made genuine friends such as Leo Thomas, who was killed in the war. Years later, Thomas's son reached out to her asking for information about his father.
"After I got that email, I cried," Pilato said.
Pilato's disillusionment with the war increased as more men from her base wound up dead while victory did not seem in sight. Upon returning home in 1972, she was angry. Meanwhile, she told few people about her experience.
"I tell people, you don't have to be shot at to suffer the wounds of war. It's the roots of a tree. It goes out and touches everybody," she said.
Pilato said writing "Angel's Truck Stop" was cathartic and the book has become a vehicle for others to cope with their own sadness.
"People come up crying, telling me their story," she said. "It's been a healing process for me and others."
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