IT IS APRIL 1993, BUT THE MOMENT Diane Carlson Evans reaches out to touch the sculpture, she is transported back 24 years to the horrors she knew so well in Vietnam. The onetime combat nurse, now a Northfield, Minn., housewife, has traveled to an artist’s studio in Santa Fe for her first view of an unfinished yet powerful tribute to the 10,000 women who served in the war. The seven-foot-tall piece portrays a nurse stroking the head of a fallen soldier as another woman scans the sky for evacuation assistance. Nearby, a third woman bows her head in grief. “The wounded soldier reminds us of all the young boys so muscular and strong,” Evans says quietly, through tears. “It makes you feel the tragedy and remember we were once young.”
This November her decade-long battle to honor female veterans will come to an end with the installation of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project in Washington. Evans, 46, has been a prime mover in the effort to build the tribute by artist Glenna Goodacre—which will be installed near the original stark black granite monument to the 58,000 soldiers who died in the conflict.
During the Vietnam War, Evans spent most of her one-year tour as a head nurse at a frontline Army unit in Pleiku, a dusty village near the Cambodian border. There she endured 14-hour days caring for men who had been blown apart in combat. Sometimes all she could do was hold their hands as they died. With enemy rockets raining down and an endless flow of wounded, the nurses learned to be stoic. “The cumulative grief was so enormous, we couldn’t talk about it,” says Edie Meeks, Diane’s best friend at the time. “I couldn’t stand it that we were patching them up and sending them back to the slaughter,” Evans says. “I shut down.”
Evans returned home in August 1969 and for years allowed her war memories to be obscured by a protective amnesia. She married Mike Evans, an Army surgeon, while stationed at Fort Sam Houston in Texas in 1971, and eventually raised four children. “I had this anger about Vietnam, but I kept it inside and didn’t show it to anyone.”
That began to change in 1982, when she attended the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial. “Parts of me were on that wall,” she says. “For every young man who died, a piece of your heart, a part of your soul went with him.”
The trip unleashed a torrent of painful memories. Evans began having nightmares about the bandaged and burned children she had seen in Vietnam. The sight of uncooked tenderloin at a wedding party brought a flashback of mutilated men struggling for life. “In a split second I would be in another place and time,” she recalls. “In Vietnam we never had a wake, never had a funeral, never had time to grieve.” Soon after-ward. Evans entered therapy at a veterans’ center together with nine men to deal with her long-suppressed emotions.
Evans began a “sister search” for women veterans to rally financial support for a bronze statue. Later she learned that not one of the 112 monuments in Washington honored military women. She spent seven exhausting years seeking government permission for the $4 million project. Some federal officials argued that because the wall contains the names of the eight servicewomen killed in the conflict, no additional monument was needed. “I told those people that without nurses, the wall would stretch for 50 miles,” she says. Husband Mike admits Diane’s family suffered along the way. “At times, we all wanted her to give it up. But now we’re proud the project is going to succeed.”
Her work nearly done, Evans says she is now at peace with her past. “There is only one place for the women who served and that is on the same site with our brother soldiers,” she says. “These women touched thousands of those names on the wall. We have to be at that spot, physically, spiritually and emotionally.”
LINDA KRAMER in Santa Fe