By AUDREY FISCHER
Using the metaphor of scaling a mountain summit, Diane Carlson Evans, Vietnam Women's Memorial Project founder and board of directors chair, described her battle to secure a monument for the 10,000 women who served in Vietnam.
Ms. Evans and her colleague, retired Army Col. A. Jane Carson, discussed women's patriotic service at a March 9 program sponsored by the Library's 1999 Women's History Month Committee.
Invoking this year's women's history month theme — "Women Putting Our Stamp on America" — Ms. Evans said, "Each summit we achieve is a stamp on America and a higher place for our daughters from which to advance. At every peak we must examine the progress made in knowledge and in practice, discover and assess the important truths about … what equal rights for women really means. Certainly it means equal responsibility for decision-making in the interests of the human race and putting our stamp on the next century, lest we repeat the brutality of this one."
As a nurse supporting the 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands of Pleiku, Vietnam, in 1969, Ms. Evans experienced the brutality firsthand. According to Ms. Evans, there were more amputations during the Vietnam War than World War II and Korea combined. But these operations were performed by medical personnel who saved 350,000 lives that might otherwise have been lost.
While nurses were instrumental in the 98 percent survival rate of the wounded, they returned home to antiwar protesters who characterized their efforts as "oil for the war machine." Worse yet, they were told by their government that they did not deserve a medal just for doing their job, she said. Ninety percent of the women who served in Vietnam were in the health care field.
Upon learning of Frederick Hart's statue portraying three infantrymen that was placed near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1984, Ms. Evans felt the need "to complete the circle of healing" with a monument honoring women veterans. That same year, she founded the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project with a goal of building an appropriate monument in the nation's capital and educating the public on the important role women played during the conflict. Little did she know that she was stepping into another minefield.
"I was naive, and that was good," Ms. Evans said. "Had I known what I would face, I never would have begun."
According to Ms. Evans, the grassroots movement for a monument was met with a vicious counterattack from all walks of life, including Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin. Most damaging was a strongly worded letter of opposition from Secretary of the Navy James Webb to the Commission of Fine Arts — the gatekeeper to new memorials in Washington.
"There will never be an addition of another statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial," wrote Secretary Webb. "All these special-interest groups want statues, including the K-9 Corps."
Just when the cause seemed hopeless, media attention began to turn the tide. The turning point came when several million "60 Minutes" viewers learned about the struggle to build a monument to honor them.
Quoting Thomas Jefferson, Ms. Evans said, "When things get so far wrong, we can always rely on the people, when well informed, to set things right."
"It took almost 10 years to 'well inform' the people," said Ms. Evans.
Eventually Ms. Evans and her supporters, who included Adm. William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, succeeded in persuading Congress to pass legislation authorizing the Vietnam Women's Memorial.
But the struggle was not over.
A heated debate ensued over the monument's design. There were those who were vehemently opposed to a statue portraying the likeness of women and instead recommended a flower garden with benches.
"We refused to lose sight of the vision and would fight to portray women as women," said Ms. Evans. "We are not a special-interest group. "There are only two genders, and we are the other half."
A national design competition resulted in the selection of sculptor Glenna Goodacre's statue of three women with a wounded soldier, surrounded by eight trees to commemorate each of the women who died in Vietnam. Prior to its 1993 placement and dedication in Washington, the monument made a historic whistle-stop tour of the country — courtesy of supporter Fred Smith, president of Federal Express, who supplied the specially designed truck, gasoline and a driver.
"Many admitted they had never told anyone that they were Vietnam veterans," said Col. Carson, Vietnam Women's Memorial Project vice chair. "Some said they did not realize … how very much they needed our memorial."
Col. Carson, who entered the Army as a second lieutenant during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and remained in the Army Nurse Corps for 27 years, did not realize herself how much she needed to work through the pain of her Vietnam experience until a call from Ms. Evans in 1984 started her on "a personal journey of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing."
"Like so many other women veterans, I had so much pain bottled up inside that I was afraid that my heart would break if I ever allowed all my emotions and feelings to surface," said Col. Carson. "As Alice Walker says in her book The Temple of My Familiar, 'sometimes breaking the heart opens it.'"
Col. Carson served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 at the 312th Evacuation Hospital and the 91st Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai. She was head nurse in Chu Lai when 1st Lt. Sharon Lane died when the hospital was mortared.
"It was always hard to lose the life of any of our soldiers. Not to be able to save a friend and colleague wounded in the middle of the hospital compound was devastating," recalled Col. Carson, who met Sharon Lane's mother for the first time at the dedication of the memorial.
"To be able to hug her was like hugging Sharon and saying, 'Welcome home,'" said Col. Carson. "Just as 'the wall' memorializes the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and the status of the three servicemen welcomes home our brother veterans who made it back to the world, now the Vietnam Women's Memorial welcomes home our sister veterans and completes the circle of healing."
Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.