'No Veteran, Regardless of Gender, Will be Forgotten’: The Story Behind the First National Memorial to Honor Female Veterans
Nov 12, 2018
Nearly two million women have served in the U.S. military but until 1993 there had never been a national monument honoring their service.
On Sunday, female veterans came together in Washington D.C. for Veterans' Day to mark the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, the first national monument dedicated to women in the military.
"All the wars and the multitude of statues in Washington, D.C., and not one – not one – recognized the service of women to our military," said Retired Army Col. Amelia Jane Carson, who was one of 263,000 women vets who served in Vietnam.
The Vietnam Women's Memorial didn't come without a fight.
"We've always kept women invisible. We've always kept them behind the scenes—in media, in history books. Of all the memorials in Washington, D.C., there was not one memorial to military women," former Army nurse Diane Carlson Evans told MAKERS.
In 1982, when the national memorial was dedicated to those who served in the Vietnam War, the statue that was erected alongside the famous Wall designed by Maya Lin only depicted three male soldiers.
In response, Carlson Evans founded the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation to advocate for the addition of a women's veterans memorial. "We saw everything. But we never saw what the women were doing in Vietnam," says Carlson Evans, who became the first woman in American history to place a national monument in D.C. recognizing the contributions of women in the military.
But she never set out to make history. As a young nursing school student in 1966, Carlson Evans was driven by curiosity. Every night she would watch what was happening abroad on the six o'clock news and one thought ran through her mind: Where were all the women? "I thought, 'well they must have nurses over there,' and I wanted to go," she recalls.
It turns out women were on the frontlines, on the sidelines, and even behind the scenes playing a critical role in the war. "We took care of thousands," she said. "We were hit hard. We were right in the combat area. Our hospital was under attack many times. We were rocketed and we were mortared."
The women nurses, however, fought to save lives of their fellow service members. "The nurses were so busy taking care of patients and protecting them, we didn't have time to worry about ourselves. They came first," Evans said.
"Women, because they were mothers, were fierce. We're like mama bears. It was my job to protect those men."
As Evans started advocating for a monument to recognize the sacrifices of women vets, she faced opposition immediately. "There were so many people against it and had set out to make sure it never got there," Carlson Evans said. One article even ran in a Virginia newspaper that said, "adding a statue at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial would be like a tacky lawn ornament."
For every nasty letter to the editor, Evans said, there'd be wounded vets coming out of the woodwork in support of nurses saying, "If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be alive."
In 1989, Evans testified in the final hearing for the placement of a women's monument. "Is not saving the lives of 350,000 wounded men in Vietnam of lasting historical significance to our nation?," she said in her speech to Congress.
The final vote was unanimous. In 1993, Evans helped unveil the Vietnam Women's Memorial, honoring all 263,000 women who served in the war.
"I am so at peace. I come here to the Vietnam Women's Memorial. Hundreds of women come up to me and hug me and they say, 'Thank you, Diane. We needed this memorial. It's changed my life,'" she says. "It will be there for kids, for the younger generation to see and know that women can be brave and courageous too."