WASHINGTON — Around the corner from the Vietnam Wall stands a bronze statue of a nurse with a wounded soldier lying across her lap and sandbags at her feet. A second nurse searches for a medivac while the kneeling female Soldier stares at an empty helmet. The scenes are enshrined on the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, a monument that honors the services of women during the Vietnam War.
Female Vietnam veterans visited the memorial for its 30th anniversary celebration this past Saturday. Among them was the woman who spent 10 years fighting for its construction.
“I founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial because I was very proud of the women I served with, and I felt they hadn’t received recognition and honor and had been left out of our memorials, books and movies,” said Diane Carlson Evans, who served as a captain and nurse in the Army.
The Vietnam Women’s Memorial, unveiled on Nov. 11, 1993, is the first monument to honor the efforts of military women at the National Mall. Evans, a Vietnam War veteran, said her time in the Army inspired her to find and tell more stories of women who served.
“No one really talked about the women who served in the military,” she said. “We were just invisible veterans. Even while we were serving, there wasn’t a lot written about what we were doing around the world during the Vietnam era. My service in Vietnam galvanized me to help tell their stories.”
Veterans returning from Vietnam weren’t welcomed by the public, Evans said. “It was very painful but I was very proud of my service, what I had done and accomplished, but we weren’t allowed to show that pride as women or men because we were being disparaged and diminished and scorned for serving our country. It was extremely painful,” she said.
After attending the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, she said she started to heal but recognized that many women who had served remained unknown.
“When I started this effort in 1983, I had to defend my proposal as to why women deserve this and why there should be an addition,” Evans said “There’s lots of criteria and gatekeeping, all kinds of opposition. It took 10 years of fighting and winning various approvals and working with Congress. It was like a second war for me. I wanted to honor my sister veterans.”
Her Time in Vietnam
Evans was raised around farmers while growing up in Buffalo, Minnesota. In 1964, many of those farmers were getting drafted. Two of her brothers enlisted in the Army, and one served with the 101st Airborne Division. While attending nursing school, Evans decided to talk to an Army recruiter. She learned the Army had a shortage of nurses and decided to join the service.
The military paid for her tuition, books and uniforms for her senior year in college. After her college graduation, Evans was assigned to Kenner Army Hospital at Fort Lee, Virginia for training. Finally, she deployed to Vietnam from August 1968 to August 1969.
“We were the youngest nurses ever sent into battle,” Evans said. “Most of us were under 25 years old. I was 21. The casualties in Vietnam in ’68 and ’69 were huge.
It was the height of the war, and I learned quickly. It didn’t take long to learn how to start IVs in the dark. We had to measure up when some Soldier came in and his life depended on us. We learned quickly. We were young and had a lot of energy.”
She said the hospital would get rocketed and mortared regularly. Soldiers put sandbags around the hospital and manned the guard towers.
“We were in the hospital saving lives as we heard incoming and outgoing artillery. We got used to knowing what the sounds meant; the air raid sirens,” Evans said. “We pulled together as a team — men and women. Our job was to take care of each other and get our jobs done and get home safely. We were there to protect our patients.”
Because of her hands-on experience in Vietnam, when she returned to the U.S., she was immediately promoted to captain at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. She later became head nurse in a surgical intensive care unit and recovery room.
Nurses on the Wall
Evans said she and her fellow nurses helped save the lives of 300,000 men who were wounded in Vietnam. “We were with so many of the men [whose names are on the Vietnam Wall] when they took their last breath,” she said.
Many of the nurses who made it back from the war continued their careers as physicians, dentists, teachers and colonels, Evans said. Some even went on to be the first female generals, including Brig. Gen. Anna Mae Hays, the chief of the Army Nurse Corps who became the U.S. military's first female general officer.
Importance of Memorial
Vietnam veteran Eileen Moore, now a justice with California Courts of Appeal, said having the memorial is important for her and the other female veterans.
“Being there and being among the other nurses who had gone to Vietnam was really healing for me,” the former second lieutenant said. “I had never tried dealing with the memories. Being around that statue and the other nurses helped me begin healing. The community really helps you.”
Moore, travelled from California to attend the anniversary, said she will never forget a pilot she treated who lost both of his legs and one of his arms. Like Moore, the pilot was Irish, so Moore spent more than 12 hours singing him Irish songs that they both had grown up with.
“I could see tears going down his face because I suspected his parents sang him the same songs,” she said. “I took a break and when I had come back, there was a letter for him. One of the guys in his unit must have brought it in. I opened it up and read it to him. It was from his wife. It had a picture of his wife and a little boy. She told him she loved him.”
She said her time in Vietnam gave her the courage to go to law school, sit on the Superior Court of California and then the California Court of Appeal.
Mary “Edie” McCoy Meeks served as a first lieutenant from February 1968 to February 1970 in Vietnam. She said she joined the Army Nurse Corps so that she could be there for her brother, a U.S. Marine, if he suffered an injury.
She said the memorial saved her life.
“I now know where to find women who speak my language; no explanations necessary, no judgements, just understanding,” she said.
If she could, McCoy said she would join the Army Nurse Corp again in a heartbeat. “Don’t sit on the sidelines of life. Step up, participate,” she encouraged.
For the nurses of the next generation, she said, “Talk to each other, it makes all the difference. Get help if you need it. We don’t have to carry everything alone.”
Mary Breed was a first lieutenant from 1969 to 1971 in Vietnam. Because of her on-the-job experience, she became an ICU nurse for the Department of Veterans Affairs for about 15 years and worked as a missionary nurse in developing countries.
“Vietnam taught me a lot,” she said. “I learned you are not self-sufficient. You have to work as a team and respect what everybody does. Their job is just as important as yours.”
She said she’s honored to have the memorial.
“I can’t thank Diane enough for all of the work she put in to make that possible,” she said. “As women, we’re taught to just accept life experiences. A lot of people kept it inside. We all identified with at least one of the people on that statue. I identified with the one holding the patient and the one looking up to the choppers.”
She said 17 crew members from the 237th Dustoff medical evacuation helicopters died the year she was in Vietnam so she was thankful she made it back safely.
“The statue is very moving, and I’m so thankful,” she said. “I hope it leads to more recognition of women in conflict and war.”
Call to Serve
As a pioneer who led the way for nurses to serve in the years that followed Vietnam, Evans encourages young women of the next generation to join the military.
“It’s the responsibility of each one of us to serve our country in some way. It makes us a better country to know that we took an oath to protect the Constitution, to protect our democracy,” she said. “We should all be taking that oath and stepping up to do whatever we can in service through military service or some kind of service to our country. It makes us a stronger, more united country."