WASHINGTON — It is a sight to see this time of year: Three nurses surrounding a dying soldier, somber bronze figures nestled among eight willow oak trees turned autumn gold. To the passing tourist, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial might be just another photo opportunity. To Diane Carlson Evans, a former Army nurse, the women’s memorial is a testament to a nine-year struggle for recognition.
Going up against Congress, three federal commissions and two existing Vietnam War memorials, Evans led a nurses’ campaign for a memorial on the Mall next to her “brother soldiers.” On Veterans Day, she gathered around the memorial with her sister nurses to honor its 20th anniversary.
The memorial’s journey for approval began nearly three decades ago when its neighboring monument, The Three Soldiers, was dedicated in 1984. Two Army soldiers and one Marine were cast as a supplement to the then-controversial Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall constructed two years before. Though the soldiers were meant to humanize the names on the Wall, it made Evans feel invisible.
“The images we’re given in our country are the images we remember,” said Evans, who lives in Helena, Mont. “If you only see men, you only think of men in warfare.”
Evans, 67, had served as an Army nurse in Vietnam with 10,000 other women; a total of 265,000 women were serving in the armed forces worldwide. Because the legislation commissioning the Vietnam Veterans Memorial listed the efforts of men and women in its language, Evans believed there was precedent for requesting a female counterpoint to the two existing memorials. The commissions that Evans would need approval from disagreed.
“The Commission of Fine Arts is responsible for reviewing public projects and they thought adding another monument could compromise the emotional impact of the existing memorial,” said Tom Luebke, the commission’s current secretary and editor of “Civic Art,” a history of the commission. “There’s generally a sense that when memorials are finished, they’re complete and we shouldn’t be doing much to them.”
The project was also criticized by some in the press, who suggested that an addition to the memorial was largely political. “It’s time to leave well enough alone,” The Washington Post wrote.
Evans sought out her fellow nurses who, after the war, dispersed to their civilian lives. When she contacted the Pentagon for the names of women nurses, the agency couldn’t provide them. The Army, it appeared, did not differentiate Vietnam nurses as women.
Even Maya Lin, the Wall’s designer, discouraged Evans’ project. Pushing ahead, Evans asked her former hoochmate Edie Meeks to share her story.
“I didn’t know how to talk about it,” Meeks said of her service in Vietnam. “I literally could not speak about it. Every once in a while, Diane would call and I’d tell her that if I looked at a monument, I’d start crying and I felt like I’d never stop.”
The turning point for Meeks came in 1992 when her daughter invited her to speak to history her class at Mount Holyoke College. After decades spent burying her involvement with the war, Meeks shared her story to willing ears. Maybe a memorial wouldn’t be so terrible after all, Meeks thought.
A story on “60 Minutes” increased the project’s visibility, and male and female Vietnam vets harnessed support for two bills and the approval of three federal commissions. In 1983, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial found a home within a small enclave 59 feet southeast of the once-controversial Wall.
Though the groups responsible for approving memorials on the Mall have discouraged further additions, it has not tempered interest. Recently, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has advocated for an underground education center to accompany the Wall, The Three Soldiers and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.
“We want to produce the highest quality and most appropriate art, but every generation has a different take on what that means,” said Luebke.
The project plans to target younger generations with digital media. While it has yet to receive final approval, Peter May, the National Park Services’ Associate Regional Director for the National Capital Region, says the project has advanced substantially.
New stage of life
For the nurses who dedicated their memorial 20 years ago, the bronze women signify a landmark for a new stage of life. To Meeks, 69, who threw away her Army nurse’s uniform after Vietnam and still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, the memorial transformed a painful tour of duty into something worth sharing.
“I still didn’t like what had happened and how it happened but I was proud of my service,” said Meeks, who lives in the suburbs of New York City. “I participated in life instead of complaining about it.”
For Evans, the personal testimonies shared around the monument make the nine-year struggle worth it.
“None of us are getting any younger,” she said. “We were bitter and angry about how the country treated the Vietnam generation. The monument has allowed us to let go of that and feel joy and happiness. That’s what I want for my sister veterans.”