A GIRL NAMED MERLE
By ANDREW MCGINN
Fifty years have now passed since a draft board wrote to Merle Szalajeski inquiring why he wasn’t registered with the Selective Service System.
Within a couple of months, the United States would have more Americans — 543,400 — in Vietnam than at any other point since the war started, and unless Merle had a good excuse for not registering, there was no reason he couldn’t join them.
Except there was: Merle was a she.
“I’m a female 20 years of age with 1 year, 11 months, 1 day of active military duty behind me,” she wrote back to her draft board in a letter dated Feb. 14, 1969.
“Also wondering,” she added, “when girls were under obligation to sign up with their Selective Service board?”
Fifty years later, at home in Churdan, it’s funnier now than it was then, only because the former Merle Szalajeski had already been to Vietnam and back by mistake.
The Army in 1967 was apparently so eager to strap a radio to the back of a grunt named Merle that no one noticed she was actually a skirt-wearing communications specialist with the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, until she stepped off the plane.
“If I have any prejudice, it’s stupidity,” she said. “Let’s just say the Department of Defense started that.”
Szalajeski was her name three husbands ago, and she eventually stopped using the first name Merle as well, opting for Marti, the nickname she picked up in high school gym class in DeKalb, Ill., thanks to a sleeveless uniform embroidered with “M. Hardy” on the front. If ever she got cold and crossed her arms, it would read “Mardy.”
Marti Thompson was born Merle Hardy, after Merle Oberon, a smoldering, Bombay-born British beauty and star of Golden Age Hollywood who most famously starred opposite Laurence Olivier in “Wuthering Heights.”
It’s pronounced like Streep, except that it’s spelled like Haggard — a name just unique enough to befuddle American bureaucracy.
You might say that with a name like Merle, Thompson was born to challenge the status quo.
Four years before Future Farmers of America officially allowed girls to join FFA nationally, Thompson had argued her way into her high school’s chapter, and she still has the blue corduroy jacket to prove it.
She then was the only girl to enlist in the military from her graduating class of more than 350 in 1966.
But Thompson soon found herself in a predicament faced by as many as one in four female veterans when she was raped while in uniform.
She has spent the past 52 years trying to put her life back on course.
Husband number one would be followed by husband number two, who was physically abusive. Husband number three never learned why his wife suffered from such bad nightmares but was sympathetic.
Thompson moved from town to town, jumping state lines if necessary, but the anxiety and the nightmares were never far behind.
“There was a dark cloud that colored my life,” she said. “I’ve written about it, burned the papers.”
By the year 2000, she already had tried and given up on 10 different medications for anxiety.
While it’s still too early to say if Churdan will be her final destination, it will always be the place where she took back her life.
“I have to be done running,” Thompson, now 70, said. “I’ve spent the last five years just putting me together.”
She fixed up a 137-year-old house not far from the school, tends to an organic garden and got her anxiety under control.
Thompson found her way to Churdan 11 years ago — having been familiar with the area after a decade in Perry — and though it’s never felt like home, it’s hard for her to say where home is.
“I’m at a crossroads right now,” she explained. “I’ve come this far, but I’m not 45 anymore.”
Like most boomers, she says she doesn’t feel 70.
“I still have something to offer,” Thompson said, “but I don’t know what it is.”
Agreeing to talk publicly about being assaulted could be a start.
Afterward, Thompson said she hoped her story might encourage other women to speak out.
Rape remains the most underreported crime in the United States, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, with an estimated 63 percent of sexual assaults going unreported to police.
Only since the mid-1970s — with the passage of rape shield laws — has an accuser’s sexual history been inadmissible at trial. Prior to that, like something right out of Salem in the 1600s, victims were made to answer in court for their supposed sins.
“I grew up in an environment where, if a girl was messing around with a guy, she’s not a very nice girl,” Thompson explained.
Sexual assault in the military has been of particular concern in recent years, and it was found to be so rife that the abbreviation MST — short for “military sexual trauma” — has joined PTSD and TBI on the list of jargon used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
One in four female veterans and one in 100 male veterans have told VA providers they experienced MST during their service.
As the culture changes — perhaps spurred on by the MeToo movement — more victims are coming forward.
The Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office reported last year that sexual assault reports were up 9.7 percent from the year before, and were up 88 percent from fiscal-year 2012.
Thompson’s rape on Feb. 6, 1967, at Fort Gordon in Georgia — the same soldier raped her again 21 days later just before he shipped to Vietnam — was never reported to law enforcement.
There was no such thing in 1967 as a rape crisis center. No kind of shelter for victims.
If a woman happened to get pregnant through rape, she had to either carry the baby to term or else break the law — abortion was illegal.
As Thompson puts it, she got lucky there.
Feminist Susan Brownmiller was still eight years away from publishing the landmark book “Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.”
Instead, Thompson’s superiors asked if they could fix her a drink, then told her to forget about it.
“That’s the first time I heard, ‘This didn’t happen,’ ” she said.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last.
Be all you can be
Thompson hails from a family with a history of military service.
Her great-grandfather was in the Civil War.
Her father, Harold Hardy, enlisted in 1942, was at the Battle of the Bulge and was in line to be Patton’s next driver when the legendary general died from injuries suffered in a car accident.
Even her mother, Florence, served in the nurse corps during World War II, and two of her mom’s three brothers enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor.
“I had a family tradition to uphold,” Thompson said.
She also had been inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to her generation five years earlier, with his immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Thompson was the oldest of seven kids — the fact that she was the only girl wouldn’t deter her.
“You can’t call me a women’s libber,” she said, “but my parents believed in equal rights. If I could pitch manure, my brothers could mop, do dishes and make their own meals. My parents were forward-thinking.”
Thompson was a crack shot with a .410, and her dad paid a bounty of 25 cents for every rat she could kill around their open corn crib. Shooting them was easy, she said; retrieving them from the farm cats was trickier.
The Army she joined in 1966 was one with limited opportunities for women.
Famous from the days of World War II, being a WAC was still the only way at that time for a woman to serve in the Army if she didn’t want to be a nurse.
Only nurses got anywhere close to combat. The rest were expected to be in skirts and pumps.
Women joining the Air Force were instructed how to apply lipstick correctly.
Despite the fact that the names of eight women are etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it wouldn’t be until 1975 that women even underwent defensive weapons training.
The Women’s Army Corps was finally disbanded in 1978 — a decade after Thompson received an honorable medical discharge just for being pregnant.
Thompson had chosen to be a communications specialist, which meant she went to signal school at Fort Gordon after basic at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
There, she learned to type 130 words a minute on a Kleinschmidt teletype machine.
Later, while stationed at Fort Knox in Kentucky, it was her job to send out Western Union telegrams informing families of loved ones who had been killed or had gone missing in Vietnam.
Sometimes, she recalled, she did 50 a day.
“I’ll never forget the day I did one of my classmates,” Thompson said.
The night her own life changed forever was near the end of signal school. She had been at the post’s service club celebrating the end of tests with friends.
She scored very high, she remembered.
It was only a short walk from the service club to her barracks. There was no reason, she thought, she couldn’t walk back alone.
As big sister to six brothers, she never had any reason to fear men — but, as she explained, a drunk soldier with a bayonet is entirely different.
“To this day,” Thompson said, “I have a hard time with Southern pines.”
Underneath the whispering pines that night in Georgia, she was helpless.
Her floor sergeant eventually found her sitting in the shower, her clothes shredded and her throat bleeding from the soldier’s bayonet.
In one hand she held a bar of soap; in the other, a brush used to scrub the floors of the barracks.
“I remember I didn’t cry,” Thompson said. “I just wanted to get clean.”
Within weeks, the same soldier assaulted her again, “only this time no bayonet,” she said.
He had just gotten his orders to Vietnam.
“He wanted to give me a parting gift to remember him,” she said.
Reeling from back-to-back assaults, Thompson was in no shape to fight off a bout of bronchial pneumonia, which put her in a military hospital, encased in an oxygen tent, for two weeks.
In fact, she said she was still running a fever when the doctors suddenly discharged her and she received her next orders.
She remembers boarding a DC-8 in Atlanta and then little else.
The plane made four stops, but Thompson was in no shape to ask or care where they were headed.
The cabin smelled only of men, their cologne mixing with the starch of new uniforms.
When they finally disembarked, the blast of heat, the lack of women and the sight of Hueys coming and going made it perfectly clear — the Army had sent Pvt. Merle R. Hardy to Vietnam.
Thoughts raced through her head.
“I’ve gone to hell and no one woke me up.”
“Am I being punished to keep me quiet?”
At processing, it was obvious to everyone that something had gone awry.
“In the uniform, you can tell I’m a girl for pete’s sake,” she said.
Her orders were for her to join a radio field unit.
Thompson was frozen with humiliation.
“They’re standing there discussing me like a specimen under a magnifying glass,” she said.
They couldn’t send her out into the boonies, but MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) in Saigon, where WACs did clerical work, didn’t have a place for her either.
She spent the next 30 days in Vietnam in a hootch under armed guard, still unsure if this was how the Army dealt with women it wanted to keep silent.
“Am I under house arrest?” Thompson finally got the nerve to ask one MP outside her door.
On the contrary, it was a SNAFU — time-tested military lingo for “situation normal: all (expletive) up” — of the highest order.
The captain who finally put her on a plane back home uttered those three familiar words: “This never happened.”
Once upon a time, the girl who was Merle Hardy had been fearless, and she later instilled that trait in her daughters, even though she came to feel she couldn’t speak her own mind.
At the start of her senior year of high school in 1965, she was convinced that girls could be in FFA.
Nationally, girls wouldn’t be allowed to join FFA until 1969.
She broached the subject one day while milking cows with her dad.
“Dad,” she asked, “don’t you think girls should be in ag and FFA?”
He asked how bad she wanted it, then helped perfect her argument. Joining FFA would require her to stand and argue her case before the school board.
“Girls could be more than trophies or chapter sweethearts,” she argued.
More than five decades later, Thompson can still remember her grandma asking, “Are you sure you want to change the status quo?”
The answer is still yes.