The Fight for the Vietnam Women's Memorial
By Diane Carlson Evans
I can still envision looking out on the hospital ward and seeing the rows of beds covered with olive green malaria netting.
I can see myself walking softly past the patients in blue pajamas. I can hear subdued cries of pain and can still smell the heated stench of pseudomonas and jungle compost.
I can see patients watching my movements. Some need my attention and signal for me to come to their side. Others turn their faces to the wall. I believe that all are reassured and comforted knowing that there are American nurses near them through the night, in the morning when they awake, and in their memories when returning to the field. They know they may return here to the only place in Vietnam where there is a glimmer of hope and some sanity in the combat zone.
Yes, war is hell, and this hellishness explains some of the things people do when caught up in it. When I looked into the eyes of some of these soldiers, I did not see the devil. Their eyes were gone to other places. They had seen and done unspeakable things and I knew they were not the same boys who left home.
* * *
My vision to place a women’s memorial on the National Mall came after attending the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication in 1982. Touching those names etched on the granite walls brought out a flood of long-submerged feelings. I came face-to-face with Vietnam for the first time since returning home in 1969, and there was no turning back.
I believed the Wall was perfect. But like the Vietnam War itself, there were conflicting views about the design. Some called it the “black gash of shame.”
In 1983, I learned there would be a compromise to satisfy the opposition. A bronze monument was commissioned portraying three male soldiers. It was dedicated next to the Wall the following year. Standing by the Wall at that time, I overheard a female Army nurse who served in Vietnam say, “Nobody gives a damn in this country about what we did over there.” I was struck by her sense of rejection from our nation. Her lack of hope. Her anger and bitterness. I took her name and phone number.
On its own, the Wall designed by Maya Lin recognized the service of Americans across gender lines. Lin designed the perfect, inclusive memorial for Vietnam veterans. The addition, however, of the Fredrick Hart-designed statue compromised the inclusive nature of Lin’s design. His portrayal of men left an exclusion of women in the figurative public memory of the war and misrepresented the full contribution of military and civilian personnel.
Women’s service during the Vietnam era was virtually unknown in our country, as were the emotional wounds they carried that were yet to heal.
I called the nurse I met at the dedication to talk about the idea for a women’s memorial. She told me it was an impossible dream, given the hostility shown toward Vietnam veterans and lack of awareness that women served. She said she didn’t need a memorial and had no interest in helping me.
While these women soldiers were known to the people whose lives they touched, I realized that they were complicit in the collective silence. They were silent and invisible veterans here at home. They were omitted from artwork, the media, history books, articles, movies, accolades, and memorials. They were not telling their stories because no one would listen. They were suffering in silence, and suffering rejection from our national leaders and our nation itself.
After spending time reflecting on my Vietnam experience and its aftermath, the need to share my story took over. I’d hidden my service with silence and I couldn’t hide it any longer. I was extremely proud of women in military service and had to find my voice. I was aware of the stereotypes and myths—too often negative—surrounding these women.
Sign up for our emails and stay connected to the USO.
* * *
If asked if there was a pivotal moment—or thunderbolt from the sky—directing me on this life-long journey, I would have to say no. My life in the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War is my vantage point. I was wounded—not physically, but psychologically. The blood of heroes that passed through my hands during that turbulent war flashed back to haunt me, driving me to tell their story and the story of the women who cared for them. I had no idea how I would do it, but something powerful was stirring.
Those of us who went to Vietnam practiced a lifetime of nursing in our yearlong tour of duty. We were the young caring for the young. The average age of the wounded soldier in Vietnam was just over 19. I was 21. The average age of a nurse was 23.
There were 265,000 women who volunteered to serve during this divisive and unpopular war. More than 10,000 women went to Vietnam. Approximately 90 percent of those were nurses. There were 350,000 men and women who were wounded in the conflict. Eight female nurses died. More than 50 civilian women died in Vietnam. It was about more than numbers. It was about their enormous contribution. We set out to honor them all.
* * *
I founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project in 1984. We faced an arduous approval process before three federal regulatory agencies in Washington. It was a formidable effort undermined by the agendas of others who set out to defeat it. This was a first in American history—-a campaign to establish a monument on the National Mall which would recognize the contributions of military and civilian women in support of the armed forces.
Fierce opposition arose as the public became aware an addition to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had been proposed. Our proposal captured the interest of influential newspaper art critics who vehemently opposed additions to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Other powerful figures in Washington claimed the role women played in Vietnam did not deserve recognition and that their service was not worthy of a monument on the Mall.
Often, backlash is evidence that one’s efforts are paying off. We felt we must be doing something right to be so important as to evoke all kinds of irrational responses. The general reception, if not indifferent, was hostile. The wounds of Vietnam—national and private—became another battle for us to face.
We had no support for a sculpture when we first went before the Commission of Fine Arts in 1987, and our request for a site at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was rejected. The commission said the memorial was closed to addition.
Immediately following the hearing, hundreds of opinions about our quest were published in newspapers—more against the idea than in favor of it. Our phone began ringing off the hook. One call was from a producer at 60 Minutes. Reporter Morley Safer wanted to know if it was true that nurses had been equated with the Canine Corps at the hearing. The chairman of the commission, J. Carter Brown, had postulated there would be a ghettoization of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and that if they allowed an addition honoring women, the Canine Corps would also want an addition. 60 Minutes subsequently aired our story with Safer interviewing five nurses who served in Vietnam. This helped turn the tide for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project.
The opposition became unrelenting.
The Indianapolis News compared adding a statue of a woman at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to adding Elvis Presley to Mt. Rushmore.
The shadow of Vietnam haunted me personally, the nonprofit I had founded, and cast every Vietnam veteran—and America as a whole—in a hallucinatory fog of denial and defiance. It would do this until we started talking and stopped fighting the war over and over.
* * *
For me, building a monument to recognize women was a matter of honor, a validation of the worth of women, the worth of their contribution, the need to learn from them and see them as mentors, role models, and leaders. It was also a matter of healing our nation. Later, that became my argument before Congress and three federal commissions. The more illogical, unreasonable press we got, the deeper we dug in. Ultimately, after two years lobbying for specific legislation, Congress voted unanimously, agreeing that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial site was the appropriate place to honor women Vietnam veterans.
In the end, despite the adversaries and all the setbacks, the major factor in getting the memorial built was the support galvanized from American citizens, especially from male veterans. I didn’t realize how much the memorial meant to them, but they flooded newspapers and the halls of Congress with hundreds of letters of support.
Overall, it was a series of transforming conversations penetrating the cultural, political and social consciousness of America that led a nation to band together in a common cause. On one hand, men obstructed the process. On the other hand, men facilitated its eventual success. Women were less than 1 percent of the military population while serving in Vietnam and less than 1 percent of the members of the three largest veterans organizations in America—organizations whose support we had to have because of their powerful political connections.
When you speak with pride and conviction, people listen. We must all fully realize our own potential. Only then are we going to be heard, understood, and able to use the collaborative power necessary to make changes that will affect our personal and professional lives, and even change communities and our nation. America has concerns on every level, but we are not powerless to change the status quo, chaos or injustice.
–Diane Carlson Evans was a first lieutenant who served as a nurse in the Army during Vietnam. She founded what is now the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation in 1984. Visit their website at www.vietnamwomensmemorial.org.