"There are 110 memorials in Washington, D.C., all but three of them to men," said Diane Carlson Evans. "Of those three, one is to Joan of Arc, one to (black educator) Mary Bethune, and the other to some nuns. I can't believe it. I walk up to some of those memorials and say, `What are YOU doing here?'"
Evans, a registered nurse who left Buffalo, Minn., at 21 to serve in Vietnam, figured women who fought, died and nursed the wounded deserved a monument too.
Seven years ago Evans founded the privately funded Vietnam Women's Memorial Project Inc. Working out of a pantry-sized office in her home east of Northfield, Minn., and an office in Washington, she lobbied federal authorities for permission to build a memorial to the 11,000 military women who served in Vietnam and the 265,000 who served around the world during the Vietnam era. Evans and thousands of volunteers in 50 states have raised $1.2 million for the cause.
It took seven years of testimony before three federal commissions and two congressional bills for Evans, now 43, to earn permission for the memorial.
More than 300 artists entered the design competition, the results of which will be announced on Sunday, Veterans Day. The winner will receive $20,000, and the design will be erected in Washington and dedicated on Veterans Day next year.
In the house she shares with her husband, Mike, a Northfield surgeon, and their four children, Evans recently sifted through an album of her war photographs: a Vietnamese toddler, her skin corroded from napalm and white phosphorus; a cluster of smiling Vietnamese boys in a burn unit; patients in beds draped with mosquito netting; Evans in a Cobra helicopter.
"I didn't support the war, but I wanted to support the people there," said Evans, who graduated from St. Barnabas Hospital nursing school in Minneapolis and volunteered in 1966. "My dad was very upset with me, but my mother is an RN, and it was OK with her."
During six years in the Army Nurse Corps, she served in the burn unit of the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau and at Pleiku in the 71st Evacuation Hospital 30 miles from the Cambodian border in the Central Highlands, just 10 to 20 minutes by helicopter from the field.
"It was a place called Rocket City, a place even Bob Hope wouldn't go to, not a good place to be," she said. "The hospital was attacked a lot; we took a lot of hits, and women were wounded too. We'd get the patients under the beds first, throw mattresses over them, live with our helmets and flak jackets on."
Temperatures reached 110 degrees in the Quonset huts where Evans worked 12-hour days six days a week.
"It was overwhelmingly frightening. We all cried at first. Pretty soon you get hard to it, because you can't be competent if you cry. The nurses and corpsmen became like robots."
Evan's patients averaged 19 years old. The average age of nurses was under 25.
Returning home, Evans served as head nurse in the surgical intensive-care unit of Fort Sam Houston Hospital, San Antonio, Texas.
"Serving in the States wasn't easy either," Evans said. "I got the patients I used to send back from Pleiku. In the U.S., they were cleaned up, but they were still dying, and you had to deal with the families. And you'd get closer to patients here, because you got to know them for eight to 12 months or more. Whereas in Vietnam you'd just stabilize them and send them home. Then they die, and there's all that pain."
After the war Evans told no one of her service and repressed most of her anger at the way returning vets were treated. In 1982, "The dam burst, and all those feelings came dumping out, and I went through the nightmares," she said. She found the men at the veterans' center in St. Paul helpful, but she needed to talk to other women Vietnam vets.
The lack of recognition of them led her to begin the women's memorial project.
Today 5 million people a year visit the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial dedicated in 1982 in Washington. Designed by Maya Lin, it consists of slabs of black granite engraved with the names of the 58,000 war dead. Only eight are women. In 1984 a bronze statue of three men in combat gear designed by Frederick Hart was added to the site.
Since launching the drive for a women's memorial, Evans has appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" and in "China Beach" and coordinated a volunteer force to raise $3.5 million.
In 1987 J. Carter Brown of the National Capitol Memorial Commission denied Evans permission for a women's memorial on the basis that "the memorial is already complete. And America has healed." Evans lobbied Sen. Dave Durenberger, sent out petitions and started a phone campaign.
"Why do we have to fight to prove that women deserve this?" she said. "It took no legislation to put up the wall or the statue of three men, they just immediately commissioned an artist. It's simple: we honor men, let's honor women. Several people said if we allow a memorial to women, everyone will want one. I said what everyone? There's only two genders.
"I never used to believe that if women want something they have to work 10 times harder, but I do now."
Although she says her "brother combat vets were very supportive," a few veterans challenged them as "a ghettoization," " a Hummel gallery," and "using the war to further the feminist cause," said Evans.
In the United States, women were not allowed to be members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars until 1978. (The American Legion has accepted women from its inception.) During a presentation on the women's memorial project before the Dallas VFW, Dr. John Wosylik, the national VFW commander, marched up to her.
"Do you know why you're wearing that hat?" he growled down at Evans, who was in her vet's cap. "Because in 1978 I was the commander when we allowed women into this organization."
"I wear it for the same reason you do: I earned it," Evans snapped back. The VFW has since joined the memorial drive and presented Evans with a check for 30,000 this year.
Others who objected "get into numbers games," she said. "I tell them 350,000 people were wounded in Vietnam, and without nurses all their names would be on the wall, and it would stretch for 50 miles."
She contrasts the efforts needed to establish a women's memorial in this country to the numerous memorials in Vietnam that include Vietnamese women.
"In Vietnam women soldiers are revered and accepted, and every single memorial there includes women. Their veteran women also receive exquisite medals."
"We see things being done on TV now about women serving in Saudi Arabia, but nobody asked us how we felt, no one ever interviewed us in Vietnam.
"I felt something was missing. This country has to know, and the parents who lost sons should know, we were there, we took care of the boys. When kids grow up whose fathers' names are on the wall, maybe when Dad died in Vietnam there was a nurse holding his hand."