A Vietnam hero to all women – Diane Evans Carlson, AgeView Press’ 5th Belle of Steel

Diane Evans Carlson founder of the Vietnam Women's War Memorial

Diane Evans Carlson, “Never say you are just a nurse.”

When you think of the Vietnam War, what images come to mind?    War ravaged soldiers in the jungle, gritty and grimy awaiting the next bamboo spike?   Hueys cutting the air with their loud propellers, transporting wounded to evac hospitals.   Nurse McMuphy running in fatigues along China Beach to the hot deck to meet a chopper?   Long haired protesters with beads burning the flag and carrying signs on the steps of the capitol?

Diane Carlson Evans, RNC, RNV experienced all of the above.   Diane was a 21 year old Army nurse serving less than 30 miles from the front at the 71st Evac hospital in Pleiku.  She also worked the burn unit at Vung Tau evac hospital during 1968-69.   For Diane, these were images she experienced every day.   Literally caring for thousands of injured, burned and dying soldiers brought to her unit during her year of service in the Vietnam.  Unforgettable images imprinted in her mind.   Holding the hands of soldiers clinging to life.  Easing the pain of those un-helpable into death.   Serving in helmets and flak jackets was a daily task; never ending choppers and stretchers.

But she regrets not one moment.  She couldn’t imagine nursing without that experience.   Vietnam shaped who she was then and who she is now.  For, Diane Carlson Evans is the nurse who made sure that the service of women during Vietnam was not forgotten.    She is responsible for the creating the movement that established the Woman’s Vietnam War Memorial in 1993.

When  Diane returned home after her service, she experienced the overwhelming sensation gripping a nation.  Why were young men dying by the thousands?  Why was the war escalating with no clear mission?  She like many others, felt betrayed by the government.    All her efforts felt senseless.  She slipped into a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) depression.   Feeling she didn’t fit in anywhere.

She attempted to return to hospital nursing.  But her practice in Vietnam, although horrific, had been autonomous.  She did what had to be done.  There were no rules that prohibited nurses from acting to save a life.   Physicians, medics and RNs worked synonymously as a team.    Frustrated, she returned to military nursing for the VA caring for the thousands of vets whom lives she had saved.   But seeing their agony, their PTSD, their heartbreak upon returning to a nation who seemed not to care about their service.  In fact, many had been verbally assaulted and slandered.  Characterized as “drug using, glassy eyed baby killers.”   Nurses were encouraged to be silent about their service.  All of this only furthered her own spiral of guilt and shame.

“Youthful exuberance serving a nation at war.”

Not willing to give up, she suppressed all the negative feelings, deeper and deeper until finally, she left nursing for a time.  She married, started a family, and was determined to just get on with life.   She wrapped up the pain of Vietnam in a box, tied it up securely and moved on.

But in 1982, when the Vietnam War memorial was established in Washington, it all came back.    Pandora’s Box was open.    She was compelled to attend the memorial.     She explained to her concerned husband that she wished to go alone, which hurt him.   She had gone to Vietnam alone.    She had returned from Vietnam alone.  She felt she should go to the dedication alone.   Where she would reunite with her fellow sister vets.  Only those who served could possibly understand the conflict of emotions.

At the wall, Diane touched only two names of the thousands, Charlene, her best friend who was a nurse killed during service and Eddie Lee Evanston.   Eddie was the one patient whose name, amidst the hundreds she personally cared for, that she would never forget.  The beautiful, blond haired, blue eyed, vibrant young man whose life ended in her arms.

The overwhelming sadness, rage and rampant depression post-Vietnam surfaced with a vengeance.  Her work was not done.   Diane wanted the nation to know the truth.   If nurses had not been there by the thousands and played their part, the wall would have been twice as long, filled with soldiers whose lives were not saved.   She was moved by what she did not see. The wall and the statue of the three men reminded her that yet again, the women were forgotten.    A mere “footnote” of the war.  People must know the other part of the story.  The women who served and cared for these brave men.   Their stories needed to be told too.  Diane was filled with an innate sense of iron will.

By Veteran’s day a year later, Diane had begun gathering data and making speeches about the lack of inclusion of women’s efforts in the war.   Fellow nurses reached out to other women veterans.   A movement had been created.  But it was going to be a battle like Diane had never experienced.

Assessing the situation, Diane determined that the pulse in Washington was not good.  There was an overwhelming misogynist attitude toward successful women on Capitol Hill.   She was told that the wall and the statue of men  was universal and meant to represent all who served.   That simply would not do.

Five years after the Vietnam War memorial wall was established and a statue created of three men, Diane lobbied congress at the Commission on Fine Arts in 1987 with a league of women to ensure that the efforts of the 265,000 women who served during the war were not forgotten.    Their request was voted down, 4 to 1.

Diane noticed that nearly all of the statues in Washington recognized the efforts of great men.    Where were the women?  Women needed to be a part of the visual history or our future generations would not see, acknowledge and ask the right questions.   Using every skill taught to her as a nurse, Diane forged on.  In Vietnam, giving up was never an option.   Neither was letting the service of thousands of women be forgotten.    Her persistence paid off.

The Vietnam Women’s Memorial  Project  forged on.   They knew they needed legislation in hand to achieve their goal.  Diane and her team began lobbying Congress, garnering support from Senator Edward Kennedy.   At the final hearing, in 1988 Diane finally got the validation she was working for from Congress.

Her resounding argument, quoting the Commemorative Works Act, was a single question:

“Is not the selfless service of 265,000 women, all volunteers, who served during the Vietnam era around the world, 10,000 of them—the majority of whom were nurses—in Vietnam under grave and life-threatening conditions, saving the lives of 350,000 American soldiers, of the greatest historical significance and worthy of this nation’s eternal gratitude?” 

It was a question that congress could not ignore.   On November 28, 1989, President George Bush signed legislation authorizing Area 1, the central monumental core of the Capital City, the site for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.  Congress had voted unanimously to allow creation of the memorial, on the sacred ground between Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.   The memorial was created and dedicated on November 11, 1993 – eleven years after the Vietnam Wall.

So where is our Belle of Steel now?   She’s still doing what she does best.   Educating others about woman’s service in Vietnam.    Archiving and categorizing letters, data, and memoirs from the era.  She is happiest when motivating other women to succeed, whether in research, advocacy, or autonomy.

Her ongoing mission?

“ . . . let’s march for peace.  For in the end, it’s how much we want peace that will bring us peace. And it’s how much we truly care about each other that will heal those scars and prevail over the tragedy of war.”

She plans to retire soon, spend more time with her grandchildren, and work on a memoir detailing the nuances of her compelling journey.    AgeView Press congratulates, Diane Carlson Evans . . . Bell of Steel # 4;  an outstanding beacon and activist for women.

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