You describe it so precisely. Did you ever have any doubts?
I was absolutely certain what I wanted to do and I never looked back from my decision. Where I studied nursing, there was one TV in the student nurses lounge and at 6 o’clock, I was the only one there watching Walter Cronkite’s reports on Vietnam. I saw body bags lying in the fields. I kept looking for images of women and there never were any. It made me wonder, are they even there? I knew so little but I knew there had to be nurses there. I couldn’t help but notice the country was becoming more anti-war. People would ask why I wanted to go over there instead of thanking me for serving. Even my brothers were unhappy because they didn’t want their sister in the Army. I didn’t know there was a stereotype of women in the Army. I thought it would be honorable.
How did you feel on the plane to Vietnam?
Nobody talked on the plane there. It was dead silent. My biggest feeling was a huge sense of anxiety. I knew I didn’t know enough when I had to face casualties. I had a fear of not measuring up. The reality of the combat zone hit me the minute our plane landed in. It was getting dark and there were two guards out on the tarmac. They said “nurses out first,” and on the steps down, I saw the guards wore bandoliers and carried huge weapons. It wasn’t the 6 o’clock news. One guard took us to a bus painted black and covered in chicken wire over the glass. We were told to keep our heads down. Everything was a rush.
What was day-to-day life like?
I was in a burn unit of the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau and then I requested a transfer to be closer north towards the action. I got reassigned to the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku. We were close to the Cambodian border and we got casualties directly from the field. We tried to stabilize them, treat their shock, stop their bleeding, get the chest tubes in, do the tracheostomy, do the triage, get the IV in and all the frontline stuff. We would have to make the decision if they were going to be shipped home or sent back out. It was hard sending people back.
Tell me about a soldier that you can’t forget.
I remember one, Eddie Lee Evenson. His wounds were minor. He was from Minnesota. I was newly reassigned at the 36th and hadn’t been in Vietnam very long. We talked about Minnesota stuff. His wounds were not major but it took a couple weeks to heal. He always asked what he could help with and was such a great, young kid. He asked if I’d write to him in the field. I wrote him a letter but never got a letter back. One day I received a yellow manila envelope with a string tie. I opened it and found my letter to Eddie. His commanding officer had sent me a message that said Eddie was killed and my letter was found with his body, unopened. That was very traumatic for me. After that, I didn’t want to know what happened to the men we treated.
What was your relationship like with other women while overseas?
There were so few of us and we stuck together. You learn fast when you have 60 patients in a unit and you have to start so many IVs… you develop skills quickly because of sheer volume. I felt compelled to build the memorial because I was so proud of these women. You thought that you had seen the worst until you saw something more terrible. You’d stop crying, stop being nauseous. I’ve had nurses tell me personally that they could never do what I did. But I tell them they’d forget about their own fears and they’d do it and be better. By the end of the year, we were all highly skilled nurses but also highly skilled and stuffing away our own emotions and shutting down about how we felt. That’s hugely part of why I wanted our country to know what we did and how we were with their sons when they were dying.
Upon returning, how did you assimilate to civilian life?
At the end of my tour, on my last day, I struggled so hard. I wanted to stay for another year. I don’t think I was well. I was exhausted. I was so tired. I flew to Japan and recovered from a fever and TB in my lungs and spleen. When I came back to Minnesota, I just slept for a month. My family was worried for me but everyone was on eggshells. When I finally began to perk up, I got a job in Minneapolis as a nurse. I didn’t fit in and it lasted three weeks. Civilian nursing was appendectomies and gall bladders. It wasn’t challenging. I was used to army nursing. I was still in shock and I wasn’t happy. Eventually I re-upped and joined my old hooch mate Edie Meeks at Madigan Army Medical Center taking care of wounded GIs returning from Vietnam. I met my husband when he was a surgery resident in intensive care.
What instigated the Vietnam Women’s Memorial project?
Because there was animosity towards the Wall, they commissioned an artist named Frederick Hart. They wanted a more heroic statue of men. I went out for the dedication in 1984 and President Reagan never mentioned the women once. He said, “Now we have finally recognized the men in Vietnam.” The whole talk was the men, the men, the men. It occurred to me that if there’s a statue of men and none of women, no one will ever know about the women who served in Vietnam.
We stood on shoulders that preceded us and the Vietnam women and men opened a lot of doors for the next generation of women. We proved that though we were in a combat zone, we weren’t shrinking violets.
The memorial has been on the Mall for 20 years. What is the purpose of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation now?
It’s very ongoing. It’s important that we keep the history and tell stories about the people who served. We honor and recognize women who served with something tangible like the sister search for veterans. We educate the public about their role and we facilitate research on related issues.
How have you struggled with PTSD?
The worst thing that could happen to me during all these congressional hearings and commission meetings was for me to get up and for people to see me as a weak female. I had to be strong and I was. But at some point I needed to deal with my emotions and when I did, I could do that in a safe place with a counselor at a vet center.
How has the perception of military women changed since you’ve returned?
When President Obama talks about the military, he talks about women and men in the armed forces. In my era, it was always just the men. We didn’t even have ROTC for women when I was in the military.
The images we’re given in our country are the images we remember. If you only see men, you only think of men in warfare. We’ve had images for centuries of men going off to suffer and die for their country. There have been very few images of women. Your conversations aren’t of women and men but just men. My brothers told me that women in the army were treated badly or were ‘bad women.’ Meeting all these wonderful women, I wanted to defy the myths, the stereotypes and transform the imagery and the conversations. Now when I write papers and speeches about this and I talk to students and civic groups about this whole effort, we see women for what they did.
The military has become more integrated but how should it address the issue of military sexual assault?
Military sexual trauma and assault happens to women and men and we need more funding to treat these victims. But how do we treat this culture? The military culture today is one where women and men are sexually assaulted and there isn’t justice for the victim. The military and Secretary Hagel is aware of this and focused on putting an end to this so women in the military can feel safe among their peers. Women will tell you that the greatest betrayal is that the very people who are working side by side with you, you might have to watch your back because you can’t trust them even though they’re the same rank or higher. The power they hold is abused. That needs to change.
What are you expecting for this year’s 20th anniversary event at the memorial?
I think because it’s the 20th anniversary, it will be an opportunity for women who haven’t been able to come in the past. I think we have more people coming than ever before. We have two hotels that have been booked full. This year we’ll start our first speakers at 8:30 a.m. and give people time to tell stories through music, poetry or letters. We’re including the Red Cross women, the civilian women, the photojournalists. Over time, it’s become apparent that there were many women in other roles. We embrace these women and their stories.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Read an interview with Vietnam War nurse Edie Meeks: “I saw people do stuff they’d never do at home.”