The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vietnam Women’s Memorial celebrates 20 years on the Mall

Courtesy of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation

It is a sight to see this time of year: Three nurses surrounding a dying soldier, somber bronze figures nestled among eight willow oak trees turned autumn gold. To the passing tourist, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial might be just another photo opportunity. To Diane Carlson Evans, a former Army nurse, the women’s memorial is a testament to a nine-year struggle for recognition.

Going up against Congress, three federal commissions and two existing Vietnam War memorials, Evans led a nurses’ campaign for a memorial on the Mall next to her “brother soldiers.” This Veterans Day, she will gather around the memorial with her sister nurses to honor its 20th anniversary.

The memorial’s journey for approval began nearly three decades ago when its neighboring monument, The Three Soldiers, was dedicated in 1984. Two Army soldiers and one Marine were cast as a supplement to the then-controversial Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall constructed two years before. Though the soldiers were meant to humanize the names on the Wall, it made Evans feel invisible.

“The images we’re given in our country are the images we remember,” said Evans. “If you only see men, you only think of men in warfare.”

Evans, 67, had served as an Army nurse in Vietnam with 10,000 other women; a total of 265,000 women were serving in the armed forces worldwide. Struck by the memorial’s omission of women, she was left with a strong desire to defy the myths of “bad army women” she had heard as a young recruit.

Because the legislation commissioning the Vietnam Veterans Memorial listed the efforts of men and women in its language, Evans believed there was precedent for requesting a female counterpoint to the two existing memorials. The commissions that Evans would need approval from disagreed.

“The Commission of Fine Arts is responsible for reviewing public projects and they thought adding another monument could compromise the emotional impact of the existing memorial,” said Tom Luebke, the commission’s current secretary and editor of “Civic Art,” a history of the commission. “There’s generally a sense that when memorials are finished, they’re complete and we shouldn’t be doing much to them.”

The project was also criticized by some in the press, who suggested that an addition to the memorial was largely political.

“Adding a statue would create a serious symbolic imbalance,” wrote The Washington Post’s Benjamin Forgey. “It’s time to leave well enough alone.”

Evans sought out her fellow nurses who, after the war, dispersed to their civilian lives. When she contacted the Pentagon for the names of women nurses, the agency couldn’t provide them. The Army, it appeared, did not differentiate Vietnam nurses as women. This mindset was made clear when J. Carter Brown, then-chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, declared The Three Soldiers monument was “symbolic of humankind and everyone who served.”

Brown’s comment insulted Evans, but according to Luebke, the commission’s stance wasn’t meant to be exclusionary. To them, being more specific presented further complications.

“When you start to be explicit in identifying participants or honorees, you end up creating a conflict of who’s in or out,” he said. “No matter what you do, someone will be unhappy.”

Even Maya Lin, the Wall’s designer, discouraged Evan’s project. Pushing ahead, Evans asked her former hooch mate Edie Meeks to share her story.

“I didn’t know how to talk about it,” Meeks said of her service in Vietnam. “I literally could not speak about it. Every once in a while, Diane would call and I’d tell her that if I looked at a monument, I’d start crying and I felt like I’d never stop.”

The turning point for Meeks came in 1992 when her daughter invited her to speak to history her class at Mt. Holyoke College. After decades spent burying her involvement with the war, Meeks shared her story to willing ears. Maybe a memorial wouldn’t be so terrible after all, Meeks thought.

A story on “60 Minutes” increased the project’s visibility and male and female Vietnam vets harnessed support for two bills and the approval of three federal commissions. In 1993, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial found a home within a small enclave 59 feet southeast of the once-controversial Wall.

Though the groups responsible for approving memorials on the Mall have discouraged further additions, it has not tempered interest. Recently, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has advocated for an underground education center to accompany the Wall, The Three Soldiers and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.

“We want to produce the highest quality and most appropriate art, but every generation has a different take on what that means,” said Luebke.

The project plans to target younger generations with digital media. While it has yet to receive final approval, Peter May, the National Park Services’ Associate Regional Director for the National Capital Region, says the project has advanced substantially.

For the nurses who dedicated their memorial 20 years ago, the bronze women signify a landmark for a new stage of life. To Meeks, 69, who threw away her Army nurse’s uniform after Vietnam and still suffers from PTSD, the memorial transformed a painful tour of duty into something worth sharing.

“I still didn’t like what had happened and how it happened but I was proud of my service,” said Meeks, who lives in the suburbs of New York City. “I participated in life instead of complaining about it.”

For Evans, who lives in Helena, Montana, the personal testimonies shared around the monument make the nine-year struggle worth it.

“None of us are getting any younger,” she said. “We were bitter and angry about how the country treated the Vietnam generation. The monument has allowed us to let go of that and feel joy and happiness. That’s what I want for my sister veterans.”

Read an interview with Diane Carlson Evans: “We weren’t shrinking violets.”

Read an interview with Edie Meeks: “I saw people do stuff they’d never do at home.”