When Diane Carlson Evans was fighting to bring a statue commemorating the contribution of women during the Vietnam War to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., she was flatly turned down.
If they added a statue of women veterans, they would have to build the Canine Corps a statue too, she was told. It would be a supermarket of sculptures, she says the memorial commission told her.
The statement only made her more determined to have the efforts of women veterans recognized.
Carlson Evans landed in Vietnam on July 31, 1968 as a 21-year-old right out of nursing school. She spent one year there and was one of about 11,000 women who served in combat zones over the course of the war. Most, about 90 percent, served as nurses, like Carlson Evans.
“We were brave because we didn’t know any better,” she says. “We were thrown into this situation.” She often entered wards with up to 65 beds, each one occupied by a soldier in need of help.
“We were understaffed and short on supplies,” she says. “We had to improvise to do everything we could. We didn’t run away and hide. We were there to save lives.”
When she returned home, she was faced with a country not only confused and angered by the war, but a citizenry who didn’t understand that women were traveling to the front lines, too.
“The entire country would watch the evening news at 6 p.m. and we saw body bags. We saw helicopters. We saw the war. But we didn’t see women,” she says. “When I came home, no one knew about us. No one even told us about veterans’ benefits.”
That’s why after she attended the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, which acknowledged the sacrifices of men, she felt called to figure out a way to bring light to the sacrifice women like her and her “sisters veterans” made.
So she founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation with lawyer Donna-Marie Boulay in 1984. It took nearly 10 years to see the statue of women to become reality.
“I learned what misogyny was during those 10 years,” says Carlson Evans.
She testified at over 35 meetings related to the statue, at a time when “there was no space dedicated to women” on the National Mall. She got hate mail to her home and threats to her life. Police had to surveil her home.
“The madder I made them, the harder I dug in,” she says.
The tide eventually turned after Maury Safer of “60 minutes” heard the now-infamous Canine Corps comment and invited Carlson Evans and other women who served in Vietnam on the show. Male veterans caught wind of the project and offered to testify to Congress in favor of the statue.
Over Veteran’s Day weekend in 1993, a bronze monument portraying three Vietnam-era female veterans caring for a wounded male soldier was dedicated as part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“Women have always been willing to serve, they have always been brave, they have always been honorable,” says Carlson Evans. “It’s what we do.”