Anyone who’s ever scanned the list of 58,318 names etched into the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., may have noticed a few that were different from the rest – particularly, the eight names that belong to women.
While women weren’t allowed to serve in combat back then, plenty volunteered for other roles that still saw them deployed to Vietnam and put in harm’s way.
As the nation recognizes all who have served this Veterans Day, a special spotlight will be on these women because Nov. 11 also commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. Standing about 300 feet behind the apex of the Wall, the memorial was the first in the nation’s capital to exclusively recognize the patriotic service of women, both military and civilian.
It took a long time to be realized, though. In fact, the idea for it didn’t even begin to take shape until the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982. Diane Carlson Evans, who eventually founded the women’s memorial, made sure she was at that unveiling.
“I had to be at the dedication. I had to find names,” Evans said.
Evans was a captain in the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam era and served in the country as a nurse at two hospitals from 1968 to 1969. She said she and many other women saw a lot of trauma, and they did their best to save lives.
An estimated 10,000 women served in Vietnam, while more than 265,000 military and civilian women served around the world during that era. While 90% of the women who served in Vietnam were nurses, many were also in administrative roles, military intelligence or air traffic control. The eight women listed on the Wall were military nurses, but dozens more women died during the war working as civilian war correspondents, photojournalists, humanitarian aids and more.
When Evans and the other women returned home, much like thousands of male service members of that era, they didn’t receive a warm welcome.
“I believe in protesting war if we don’t support it, but they didn’t separate the war from the warrior, and we were feeling the brunt of it,” she said. “For so many of us, our way of surviving our homecoming was to just not talk about [the war].”
However, about a year after the Wall’s dedication, Evans saw a photo of the statue that would be added to the memorial depicting three servicemen. And that’s when something just clicked.
“If they’re going to have a statue to the men, there has to be one to the women, or they’ll never know we were there,” Evans remembered saying to her husband.
So, she began what turned into a 10-year quest to get a memorial built for female Vietnam veterans. (To put this effort into perspective, the larger memorial, the Wall, took three years.) After years of planning and finding allies to support the cause, Congress approved a site on the National Mall for it in 1988, but the initial design was rejected by the D.C. Commission of Fine Arts, Evans said. So, they held a national open-design competition that received 350 submissions. The design by Glenna Goodacre, a New Mexican sculptor, came out on top. She created the bronze statue that’s now in place depicting three women and a wounded soldier.
“The nurse tending to the wounded soldier directly faces the apex. The standing woman … is facing the [Abraham] Lincoln [Memorial], and the kneeling woman is facing towards the Washington Monument,” Evans explained. “The eight trees that surround this monument represent the eight women whose names are on the Wall.”
She said while the statue depicts nurses, it’s a memorial to honor all women who served.
“There is no rank on the figures. there is no insignia identifying any of them,” Evans said. “We embrace the 265,000 women who served around the world.”
Once it was built, Evans said letters of thanks from servicewomen of the era began to pour in.
“They were just so thankful for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial because it was the starting point for their healing,” she said. “Once they started sharing their stories, the public was incredulous. They had no idea that that’s what we had seen, that’s what we had done. … And so, the appreciation and the gratitude from the public for these women has all been part of that healing process.”
Over the years, more and more women have opened up to tell their stories publicly. For this year’s Veterans Day commemoration on the National Mall, Evans said that, for once, it wasn’t hard to find women willing to participate.
“They’re just coming out of the woodwork. It’s wonderful. I’m hearing from so many of them that they’re coming in,” she said. For those who can’t attend in person, the event will be a livestreamed at https://www.vvmf.org/live/.
Evans said that, in the past 30 years, female veterans have contributed greatly to America and should be celebrated.
“Some of them went on to become colonels and generals and stayed in the military. Others came out and … changed occupations. They furthered their degrees, and they’ve been contributing to research that’s being done on PTSD and Agent Orange. They’ve fought for legislation for gender-inclusive benefits at VA facilities which were not friendly to women veterans when we came home in the 60s and 70s,” Evans said. “We proved ourselves, and we opened doors for the next generations. Now, the sky’s the limit.”
Evans said she and other female vets will continue to share their legacy “every day until we’re all gone.”
“I want to say how proud I was of the women I served with, and how much we cared for these young men who served during that era,” she continued. “I’m so grateful to all those wounded soldiers in particular who came to stand by our side and support us to help us get that memorial built. … They were so appreciative and so grateful.”
To learn more about the special events honoring servicewomen this Veterans Day weekend, visit the Vietnam Women’s Memorial website.