Diane Carlson Evans was a nursing student in Minnesota in the late
1960s when she noticed her male friends and classmates getting called up
one by one to go to Vietnam.
Very much aware of the war, she visited a recruiter and asked how she could join the effort.
"I decided I needed to be there, too," she says.
Army needed nurses, so, after graduating college and undergoing basic
training, she served as a nurse in evacuation hospitals in Vung Tau and
Pleiku, Vietnam from 1968 to 1969.
Carlson Evans says she and
other nurses put their youth and inexperience aside to treat serious
injuries and unfamiliar diseases while serving in combat zones.
"We were young taking care of the young," she says.
The memory and legacy of the women who served in Vietnam and paved
the way for future generations will be honored at the annual Veterans
Day observance Monday with a ceremony at 1 p.m. at the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial in Washington. Also, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund will
celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, located
near the iconic Vietnam Wall.
Carlson Evans, who is the founder
and president of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation, says she
initiated the effort for a women's memorial when she found out that a
statue of three men would be added to the Vietnam Memorial in the early
"Every story is about the men. People don't even know women
were in Vietnam," she recalls thinking at the time. The women's memorial
"heightens awareness that women went off to war, and this is what they
did. And their contributions are worthy of recognition by the nation."
Sculpted by Glenna Goodacre, the bronze statue depicts three uniformed women with a wounded soldier.
her time in Vietnam, Carlson Evans says about 90% of women serving were
nurses, while the rest made up the Woman's Army Corps in areas such as
administration, finance and bookkeeping. In the 1960s, women made up
about 1% of the total military force. Today, they make up 15%-20%, she
Following Vietnam, Carlson Evans says some women would go on to serve
in leadership roles, becoming "fully integrated" in the military.
Perkio, assistant director of education at the American Legion national
headquarters in Indianapolis, says that while women in the past were
seen as individuals needing protection, the roles have expanded
significantly. Perkio served in the Army from 1980 to 1984 in the
In January, then-Defense secretary Leon Panetta
decided to open previously off-limit posts in armor, infantry and
special operations to women. Later in June, the Pentagon issued its
timeline for allowing women to serve in front-line combat roles by 2016.
become a reality," Perkio says. "Slowly, women have been put into roles
that were considered gender-specific for men. ... Women are wanting to
participate side-by-side by their male counterparts in combat to serve
In reality, women in combat roles are nothing new,
she says. It happened in the Gulf War, including women serving as
"Women were actually gunners," Perkio says.
"Women performed many different tasks that put them in potential direct
line of fire."
Kristine Hesse, the women veterans outreach coordinator at the
National Veterans Foundation, agrees that women are already in combat
and completely integrated in the military.
"We're pushing forward
and at a faster pace in the service," says Hesse, who served 24 years in
the Air Force and retired about two years ago. "The recognition is
coming because we are doing these jobs now."
When people argue
that women should not serve in combat zones because men will be too busy
taking care of them, Carlson Evans says she finds it laughable.
"In Vietnam, I had 45 men in beds, and, as a woman, I was protecting them," she says.
Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services
Committee for the past seven years, says she continues "to be amazed by
the contribution women in our military have made to our national
"The past 20 years have seen a dramatic increase in the
overall number of women in the military, as well as women in
unprecedented leadership roles," she said in an e-mail. "We've seen
women step into new jobs and missions, and most dramatically, the
services are moving to open front-line combat positions that had
previously been closed to women."
At the invitation of Carlson Evans, retired general Colin Powell will be delivering the salute to the Vietnam Women's Memorial.
"As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I spoke at the
groundbreaking of the Vietnam Women's Memorial in 1993, so it will be
especially poignant for me to speak this Veterans Day as we celebrate
the 20th anniversary of the Women's Memorial," Powell, who fought in
Vietnam and later served as secretary of State, said in an email. "I
most especially want to acknowledge the 11,000 women who served in
Vietnam, mostly as nurses."
Powell said the bronze statue
"celebrates the hope, strength and passion that the Vietnam women
brought to the struggle for life in Vietnam."
"They paved the way
for the large-scale increase in the number of women in the Armed Forces
serving in almost every occupational specialty."
For its founder,
the memorial stands as a visual reminder of all the women who "exceeded
expectations" and ultimately opened doors for those who followed.
proved our strength, our courage, our bravery," Carlson Evans says. "We
stand on the shoulders of every generation that (stood) before us."