SHERIDAN — In 1982, a wall was erected in Washington, D.C., bearing the names of the fallen soldiers of the Vietnam War.
Diane Carlson Evans attended the dedication of that monument and saw the names of her lost friends, family and patients and for the first time since the war, she started to reflect on what had happened.
“All those memories and feelings I had stuffed all those years were coming back and I finally started to grieve,” she said.
“I never cried over anything at all after Vietnam, until I stood at the wall and cried. From then on, I couldn’t stop.”
Evans said the memories started interrupting her daily life as she thought about all the healing and reflecting she and others were desperately needing. Yet all those years later the stories of the heroic nurses of the war had still not been told.
“If it wasn’t for those nurses in Vietnam, that wall would be a lot higher and longer than it was and people didn’t even think about that,” she said. “I was feeling this extraordinary guilt brewing inside me that I had unfinished business.”
One nurse’s tale
As a young girl on a dairy farm in Buffalo, Minn., Evans didn’t know that her desire to be a nurse would take her on a very long painful journey, but when war broke out and friends were killed she volunteered to serve.
Evans served in the Vietnam War at the age of 21, saving lives as a member of the Army Nurse Corps from 1968-69.
Evans witnessed so much pain. She has countless stories of heroes and heartbreak, including being airlifted to combat zone hospitals then seeing recovering men reinjured or killed as facilities were bombed.
Her biggest struggles, though, began upon returning home to a country that did not know how their women had served and didn’t appreciate what all of the soldiers had just survived.
“I became good at what I did over there, it made me tough,” Evans said. “But I didn’t know how tough I was going to have to be to get through mean-spirited people.”
Evans was one of the more than 260,000 women who served in the military during the Vietnam era, yet in most cases records of women in service were not kept and for those that were, stereotypes and misconceptions of what happened overseas made it as if their service did not exist.
As a result, many women tried to act like they were never there. The wounds left behind from what they experienced at war were only worsened by their attempts to forget and the lack of community support.
“I had just witnessed the suffering and dying of young men trying to support their country and then I came home and the country was not supporting them,” Evans said.
A monument erected
After the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial left her with a feeling of unfinished business, as founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation Evans made it her mission to have a statue dedicated in D.C. on the grounds near the wall portraying the women of the war. She also set out to identify the women who served and make their stories known to a country that had yet to acknowledge their contributions.
“In my pursuit of the monument, I had to battle some very powerful agencies and some very powerful men while tackling my own depression and raising four kids under the age of 10,” she said. “I had doors shut everywhere I went, even being called a ‘radical feminist using the Vietnam dead to further my cause’ by a newspaper in Missouri.”
After 10 years of battling, appeals before Congress, an appearance on “60 Minutes” and countless tears, in 1993 a women’s memorial was dedicated.
Stories to be told
Evans knew this was only the beginning as the statue could not actually tell the women’s stories which needed to be heard. She decided to host an annual open mic storytelling session in front of the statue which has continued each year since its dedication on Veterans Day.
Every person who served in the Vietnam War has a different story and each story contributes to personal healing, the healing of fellow veterans and the growth of knowledge and understanding of pieces of American history often overlooked. For these reasons and many others, Evans plans to attend the local performance of “A Piece of My Heart.”
The play is an adaptation by award-winning playwright Shirley Lauro of author Keith Walker’s 1986 novel. Walker — determined to tell the tales of the women of the Vietnam War — collected the stories of 26 women of war.
“Piece of My Heart” will be performed beginning at 7 p.m. April 16 at the WYO Theater and focuses on the experiences of six of those women.
“To me, it’s our responsibility to talk about this and tell the truth about war and what it does to the human psyche,” said Evans, “because we heal together, not alone.”
She will host a question and answer session after the production of the play.