Evans, Diane Carlson
Diane Carlson Evans
Born in 1947
U.S. Army nurse in Vietnam and founder of
Vietnam Women's Memorial Project
Vietnam veteran Diane Carlson Evans has played a central role in bringing the service of U.S. women personnel in Vietnam to the attention of the American public. In 1984 she founded the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project, an organization dedicated to building a monument to the women veterans who served in Vietnam during the war. In 1993, Evans's devotion to the project was rewarded when the Vietnam Women's Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C.
Nursing career takes Evans to Vietnam
Diane Carlson Evans joined the U.S. Army as a registered nurse in 1966, when American military involvement in the Vietnam War was expanding rapidly. This commitment of U.S. forces stemmed from deep concerns that South Vietnam was about to be conquered by the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its guerrilla allies in the South, known as the Viet Cong. North Vietnam had been working since the 1950s to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and reunite the two countries under one Communist government. But U.S. government officials felt that a Communist government in Vietnam might trigger a wave of Communist aggression around the world and threaten the security of the United States.
As a result, the United States sent money, weapons, and military advisors in the late 1950s and early 1960s to help South Vietnam defend itself against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Then in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) began sending American combat troops into Vietnam. But steady increases in U.S. involvement over the next few years failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the war dragged on inconclusively, and divisions over the conflict erupted in communities all across America.
Evans was sent to Vietnam in 1968 to serve a one-year nursing tour. For most of her year in the war-torn nation, she worked as a head nurse at a medical unit in Pleiku, a small village near the Cambodian border. This was a very violent and dangerous region of the country, so Evans and the nurses under her supervision treated large numbers of casualties (persons who are killed or severely wounded) every week. Each member of the nursing staff in Pleiku routinely worked fourteen-to sixteen-hour days trying to save the horribly wounded soldiers and Vietnamese civilians who poured into the facility. On some occasions, they had to treat young men whose limbs had been blasted off, even as enemy rockets crashed down around the medical compound.
"I became one of thousands of Army nurses doing quietly what all military and civilian nurses do: caring for the wounded and ill," Evans recalled in a May 24, 1998, speech to Vietnam veterans in Washington, D.C. "Those of us who went to Vietnam practiced a lifetime of nursing in one year—our tour of duty there. We were the young, caring for the young. The average age of the wounded soldier in Vietnam was 19.4 years. The average age of the nurse was 23. We quickly learned that the primary reason we were in Vietnam was to get each other home."
Evans performed at a high level in Pleiku, caring for wounded soldiers and attending to her many responsibilities as a nursing supervisor. But as the months passed by, the constant exposure to mutilated bodies and dying soldiers took a heavy emotional toll on her. "I couldn't stand it that we were patching them up and sending them back to the slaughter," Evans recalled in People Weekly. "I shut down [emotionally]."
The Wall awakens painful memories
In August 1969 Evans finished her one-year tour in Vietnam and returned to the United States. When she came home, she was shocked at the negative attitudes that many Americans seemed to have developed toward both the war and the American men and women who served in the conflict. "When I returned home from Vietnam . . . to flag burnings and antiwar, antisoldier protests, I was told that nurses were 'nothing but oil for the war machine,'" she told People Weekly.
Unsettled by the hostility and indifference that many Americans expressed toward Vietnam veterans in the early 1970s, Evans tried to push away her war memories and lead a normal life. In 1971 she married Army surgeon Mike Evans, with whom she started a family (they have four children). She also remained with the U.S. Army until 1972, when she left the military to continue her nursing career in the private sector. In 1975, meanwhile, North Vietnam finally conquered the South to reunite the battered nation under Communist rule.
Throughout the 1970s Evans tried not to think about her wartime experiences. "I had this anger about Vietnam, but I kept it inside and didn't show it to anyone," she told People Weekly. In 1982, though, Evans attended the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. This memorial, commonly known as "the Wall," honors the 58,000 American soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Evans's journey to the Wall stirred up many painful memories of Vietnam.
When Evans returned home, she began having flashbacks about bandaged and burned children in Vietnam. "In a split second I would be in another place and time," she told People Weekly. "In Vietnam we never had a wake, never had a funeral, never had time to grieve." Eventually, she joined a veterans' therapy group to help her deal with the flood of emotions that she had been holding back for so many years.
Starts the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project
As Evans learned to cope with her Vietnam memories, she developed a new-found pride about the brave service that she and other nurses had provided during the war. But as these feelings surfaced, she realized that most Americans did not know about their contributions. Inspired by the Wall, which gave American men who fought in Vietnam the recognition that they had long deserved, Evans decided to launch an initiative that would pay tribute to the American women who served in the war.
In 1984 Evans founded the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project. Under her guidance, the organization worked to gather women veterans together and raise funds for a monument that would recognize the work of the estimated 250,000 women who served in Vietnam. She also spent countless hours seeking government approval to place the memorial near the Wall. Evans was told by some agencies that a new monument was unnecessary, since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial included the names of the eight servicewomen who had been killed in Vietnam. But this argument did not carry much weight with Evans. "I told those people that without nurses, the [Vietnam Veterans Memorial] wall would stretch for 50 miles," she recalled in People Weekly. "There is only one place for the women who served and that is on the same site with our brother soldiers. These women touched thousands of those names on the wall. We have to be at that spot, physically, spiritually and emotionally."
In 1988 the U.S. Congress finally authorized the construction of a Vietnam Women's Memorial near the Wall. Sculptor Glenna Goodacre was selected to design the monument. As Goodacre began work on the tribute, Evans and the other members of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project launched a variety of fund-raising activities to cover the project's $4 million cost.
The Vietnam Women's Memorial is unveiled
The Vietnam Women's Memorial was finally dedicated on November 11, 1993, nearly a decade after Evans began work on the memorial project. An estimated 25,000 people attended the ceremony, during which Goodacre's bronze monument was finally unveiled. The statue shows a nurse comforting a fallen soldier as another nurse scans the sky for an incoming evacuation helicopter. A third woman in the sculpture stands nearby, bowing her head in sorrow. The memorial area is also bordered by eight trees that commemorate the eight servicewomen who died in Vietnam. "Welcome home, daughters of America," Evans said at the dedication. "Welcome home, my fellow sister veterans. Allow the love and pride that fill this hallowed space to enter your hearts and souls today and forever as we continue our journey in life."
Since the dedication of the Vietnam Women's Memorial in 1993, Evans has maintained her nursing career in Minnesota. But she has also remained an active member of the Vietnam veteran community. In addition, she continues to lead the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project, which is working to identify all nurses who served in Vietnam and maintain public awareness of the contributions of Vietnam-era servicewomen.
Evans often makes public appearances to talk about American nurses in Vietnam and her own wartime experiences. "When I speak in high schools and colleges about the Vietnam experience, students will come up to me and say, 'my dad served in Vietnam, but he won't talk to me about it,'" she said in a 1998 speech. "Those are the students who usually have tears in their eyes. The young women will often ask, 'What was it like for the women in the war?' Questions are being asked, and we must answer them if we are to prevent history from repeating itself."
In January 1998 Evans took part in an event called the Vietnam Challenge. This event brought dozens of American Vietnam veterans—including a number of amputees—back to Vietnam to participate in a two-week bicycling trip across the country with former Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers. The group bicycled from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the old capital of South Vietnam. "We were each challenged physically, but the greater challenge was reconciliation," Evans recalled. "We cycled down Highway One past mountain vistas and the South China Sea—our anxiety level increased the closer we came to the former DMZ [demilitarized zone, the boundary that used to divide North and South Vietnam]. As we crossed the Ben Ha River bridge into the former South Vietnam, we became silent. We set our bikes down, hugged, cried, went off to reflect on our own or to speak the thoughts we held tight all these years. We were not riding for ourselves. We were riding for all the lives lost and missing in Vietnam."
Claflin, Terrie. "Monumental Achievement: Twenty Years after Vietnam, Invisible Vets Get Their Memorial." Ms., November–December 1993.
Ellis, David. "They Also Served: A Former Army Nurse Wins Her Fight to Honor the Women of the Vietnam War." People Weekly, May 31, 1993.
Loose, Cindy. "Vietnam Women's Memorial Dedicated before 25,000." Washington Post, November 12, 1993.
Marshall, Kathryn. In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.
Norman, Elizabeth M. Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses WhoServed in Vietnam. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
An American Nurse Recalls Arriving in Vietnam
In February 2000, The Learning Channel television network broadcast a special documentary about American women—both civilian and military—who went to Vietnam during the war. In the documentary, called Vietnam: Women at War, Vietnam veteran Judy Elbring recalled her feelings after she arrived in Vietnam in February 1967 as a twenty-four-year-old nurse:
The day we arrived—oh God—it was hot, it was sticky, it was smelly, it was dangerous, there were things that were booby trapped . . . . Everything was green and dust and fences and wire and noise . . . . And I thought, what a fool I'd been . . . . This didn't look like an adventure to me; this looked very serious.
I wasn't ready for seeing those kids with holes in their heads and with brains coming out of their heads and—and that they were going to die. I wasn't prepared to look in a man's face and know that he wasn't going to make it. I don't know that there's any preparation for that.