Inspired by her aunt who served in World War II, Diane Carlson Evans volunteered for the military and at the age of 21 served as head nurse in a major surgical evacuation unit at Pleiku in 1968-69. Fifteen years later, she would unwittingly head into another form of combat. In 1982 she attended the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which left her sleepless and uneasy. The ensuing controversy about adding a figurative statue depicting men stirred up even more pain. Eventually, she decided she could not rest until the contributions of women in Vietnam had been recognized. Facing a tidal wave of opposition during a decade of struggle, Evans and her supporters—ranging from veterans organizations to civic organizations, veterans and their families and friends—turned the tide, making history with the placement of a statue honoring all the women who served in Vietnam. The statue of three uniformed women with a wounded soldier, erected near The Wall in 1993, stands as the first national monument honoring women in the military. A celebration of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial’s 20th anniversary will take place over Veterans Day weekend, November 9-11, 2013.
Tell us about the event on Veterans Day.
We’re excited about the 20th anniversary, and this will be bigger than ever before. A lot of women and men and their families are coming in. We’re getting older and I think those who have yet to come are feeling this is the time.
Why do you think they have waited?
A lot of women say they’re just not ready. That’s what the men say too. One of the big signs of post-traumatic stress is avoidance of anything that will remind us of our time in Vietnam.
How did the project for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial begin?
I attended the dedication of the opening of the Maya Lin memorial in 1982. After I came home, I was plagued, if you will, with recurring memories of Vietnam. I had my mind going to places I didn’t want it to go, and yet it went places where I wanted it to go and I couldn’t remember.I really wanted to find names of some of the women and men, medics and helicopter pilots. Did they die? Did they make it? Where are they today? Did I miss their names on The Wall? I had an overwhelming sense of sadness, and it wouldn’t go away.
What happened next?
In 1983, Minnesota—my home state— was giving a parade to honor their veterans, recognizing it was time to welcome the vets home. I told my husband, “We have to honor the women too.” He said, “This is like motherhood and apple pie: Who would be against honoring nurses who were there? Nobody would dare.”
Did it turn out that way?
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was done with a stroke of the pen. Nobody had to get a bill passed for that. What I found is that we had to organize and advocate for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. The important thing was identifying the people who could help move this along. We had to write articles of incorporation as a nonprofit charity. We built up the board of directors; we opened an office and identified volunteers to help. I wrote a strategic plan: What are the first baby steps? One of the first steps was to contact all the veterans organizations: VVA,VFW, Purple Heart, PVA. That’s how I spent the first four years, garnering support of the veterans service organizations. That was key.
Did you expect opposition?
No. We volunteered for the military. Some women got orders for Vietnam, so it’s not true that all women were volunteers. But we were all volunteers in the military, and I had spent more than six years in the military. My driving force was that I was so proud of the women I served with. But they weren’t in the national conscience. My goal was to tell the truth: what they did and how they saved lives. The public needs to know that women too have issues and needs. The VA needs to reach out to these women. It was like a ripple effect: I found out that women were not included in the study of Agent Orange. We were excluded from everything, excluded from the memorial statue, excluded from research. We didn’t even know if we were allowed to go to the vet centers until we asked.
Explain the obstacles you faced in Washington.
We were well prepared, but the hearing was a joke. The [memorial] commission had already made up their minds against us. Only one commissioner changed his mind and voted yes. He stood up and said: “I was going to vote no today, but my father served in World War II as a Navy surgeon and I remember him telling me about the Navy nurses.I think these women deserve this memorial.” The rest of the commission glared at him. The head of the commission said he didn’t want to open floodgates for other proposals for memorials. The Canine Corps had a proposal for a memorial, and he said if we give the women a monument, the Canine Corps will want theirs. And that’s when Morley Safer of 60 Minutes called me to ask if I would talk about the memorial and why it was denied.
What did you do next?
We were not going to quit. But now we have to get a bill passed. I went to my congressman and senators. I asked,“Why do I have to go get a bill?” I had read the legislation for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial over and over, which said it is dedicated to the men and women who served in Vietnam. So the women are already included; they can’t exclude us.
Even with a bill passed, there was still a struggle?
We finally got a bill passed and hired a design director. Now the opposition really comes out of the grass. Letters to the editor are popping up all over saying this is a bad idea. But those opinions resulted in hundreds of veterans and families of veterans writing in to counter what the letters were saying. All that bad publicity in the end worked in our favor.
So it was true grass-roots support?
We pounded D.C. We ordered 50,000 petition posters and gave them to all our volunteers. We had an infrastructure in every state—we flooded them with brochures, newsletters and petitions. Each poster had to have 75 signatures in support of building this memorial. They were sent to all of the congressional delegations in D.C. Some got so mad they said quit sending these; we got the message. But when the opposition discovered that this was really gonna happen, they became more vicious. I can’t tell you the threats I received. It was sick.
How did you manage to go on?
It was about not giving up—and thinking about where the opposition came from. Was it mean-spirited? Yes, so ignore it. Was it obstructionism to stop us in our tracks and scare us? Yes, so ignore it and use the positive power that we had to move ahead. Once I did tell my husband I was giving up. I said,“We have four kids under the age of 10; I don’t have time for this.” But instead, I quit my part-time job. I quit donating to church because all our money was going to this.
How did the project broaden from nurses?
When I founded this project, I didn’t know there were enlisted women from the Army Corps in Saigon. After sending out the press release and brochures about the memorial, I got letters from women saying: “How dare you? Do you only think about nurses? What about us? We were there too.”So we all agreed that we would honor military and civilian women in whatever way we could. That got tricky because the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is only for armed forces.We couldn’t have a Red Cross uniform on the statue.
How did the women serving in Vietnam influence the progress of women in the military?
Everything depended on how smart we were, how quick we were, how brave we were. We were rocketed and we were mortared. The only difference was we couldn’t pick up a gun and shoot back. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial opened eyes. Women who served in World War II came home unrecognized, unheralded.Vietnam veteran women opened a lot of doors for today’s generation of women.
What do you think of allowing women in combat positions?
We’re beyond baby steps, but I think we’re still in middle school. Women have been in combat forever; they just haven’t had guns to shoot back. Women are willing to go, but the culture has to change. The military sexual trauma is shameful. It’s a national tragedy. It’s a crime and it’s not being treated as a crime. Until it’s treated as a crime, it’s not going to change.
What surprised you the most about your project?
I had no idea how much this would mean to the men. They were in tears over it, and couldn’t send enough money. One of our first donors sent us his disability check with a note that said,“I am sending this to you every month until this memorial is built.”That’s what got the memorial built. It was our brother veterans, families, veterans organizations and just grass-roots people who believed in this. The country did the right thing.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.