It's like a bad dream. After all the supposed progress toward equality, we are being told that the existing all-male statue of infantrymen at the Vietnam Memorial adequately represents all who served, regardless of sex.
"We have heard some rhetoric," says J. Carter Brown, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, in a letter to the editor Nov. 11, about there being no memorial to the nurses who served in Vietnam and in the hospitals elsewhere that cared for the Vietnam wounded. He says there is a memorial somewhere over in Arlington honoring the nurses of all wars. Further, he says, a memorial to the Vietnam nurses would be "transcended" by something planned to honor the women who served in all of our wars.
Transcended, indeed. It has still not sunk in with Brown, and he is by no means alone, that there is a depth of tragedy and sorrow to the Vietnam War that is unique in our history, the dimensions of which we have only recently begun to comprehend, and that we have scarcely begun to address.
On the same day Brown's letter appeared, his and any other objections that might be raised to the statue were devasted by a poem read on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."
The poem, by a former Army nurse who permits herself to be identified only as "Dusty," was found at the foot of the wall carrying the names of the dead and is included by Laura Palmer in her recently published book, "Shrapnel in the Heart." The poem is so powerful that the NPR news people found it difficult to find anyone who could read it on the air and retain composure: Hello, David -- my name is Dusty. I'm your night nurse. I will stay with you. I will check your vitals every 15 minutes. I will document inevitability. I will hang more blood. And give you something for your pain. I will stay with you and I will touch your face. Yes, of course, I will write your mother and tell
her you were brave. I will write your mother and tell her how much
you loved her. I will write your mother and tell her to give your
bratty kid sister a big kiss and hug. What I will not tell her is that you were wasted. I will stay with you and hold your hand. I will stay with you and watch your life flow
through my fingers into my soul. I will stay with you until you stay with me. Goodbye, David -- my name is Dusty. I am the last person you will see. I am the last person you will touch. I am the last person who will love you. So long, David -- my name is Dusty. David, who will give me something for my pain?
That word, "wasted," is what the Vietnam Memorial is all about. It is why, unlike ceremonies over the decades at memorials to the dead of World Wars I and II, the human reaction is uniformly one of grief. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the deep psychological scars borne by the military nurses who dealt directly with the Vietnam casualties.
My wife served as an Air Force flight nurse during the Korean War. Through her and through my work, I have met many military nurses from that conflict and from World War II. Although the physical and emotional trauma in both of those conflicts was on the same scale of horror for anyone who dealt directly with the wounded, I have never seen the hurt so close to the surface as it is with the Vietnam nurses. I can think of none of the Korea or World War II nurses who would have said of the individual or collective sacrifice that it was "wasted."
The sense that World War II was a triumph over evil, that even Korea was a justified response to aggression seems to have been a powerful balm. I think that even if Vietnam had been a military defeat for the United States, in the sense that the Confederacy was overwhelmed and defeated in the Civil War, the wounds, emotional as well as physical, would have been borne with the defiant pride the Confederate veterans evidenced to the end of their lives. It is the feeling -- nay, the knowledge -- of purposelessness borne of incompetence in the highest levels of government, an incompetence that has never been examined by official inquiry, that has left the Vietnam wounds raw and will keep them open and bleeding until the people and the institutional defects that brought about the waste are brought to account.
The poem by "Dusty" says it all.
Granted, it is not only nurses who should be honored. Female medical technicians surely suffered as severely as the commissioned nurses. But in a symbolic sense, it is the nurse who seems best to represent the women who served in Vietnam, for she above all -- whether professional feminists like it or not -- best represented the motherhood that young soldiers have called upon in the hour of death since time immemorial.
So let's get on with it. Put up a statue of an Army nurse and inscribe on its base "Dusty's" poem. Let that word "wasted" and the 58,000 names it represents everlastingly confront everyone in Washington, high or low, military or civilian, who has anything to do with sending men and women into danger. That, at least, we can do for Dusty's pain.
-- William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs