“In an era of universal polemics and political unrest – with no thought of glory, with no fanfare or public notice – 265,000 women volunteered to go where they were needed, to do what was needed. The era was known as Vietnam, and these young women, most in their 20s, risked their lives to care for our country’s wounded and dying.”¹ They served in the armed forces of the United States. They served in-country during the conflict. They completed their tours of duty and made a difference. Some gave their lives.
Twenty-three years ago today, November 11, 1993, “for the first time in America’s history, a memorial that honors women’s patriotic service was dedicated in our nation’s capital, placed beside their brother soldiers on the hallowed grounds of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.” The Vietnam Women’s Memorial, a multi-figure bronze monument designed by New Mexico sculptor Glenna Goodacre, was the first tangible symbol of honor for American women.
“That my hands can shape the clay which might touch the hearts and heal the wounds of those who served fills me with humility and deep satisfaction.” – Glenna Goodacre
Diane Carlson Evans, a former Army combat nurse who served in Vietnam (1968-69), is the founder and chair of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation (VWMF). She conceived of the idea as way to honor those women who served, as well as for the families who lost loved ones in the war, so they would know about the women who provided comfort, care, and a human touch for those who were suffering and dying.
In doing so, Diane became “the first woman in American history to spearhead a campaign to place a national monument in Washington, DC that recognizes the contributions of military women to their country, as well as civilian women’s patriotic service.”
Diane’s VWMF (formerly the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project), a non-profit, was officially incorporated in 1984. When she and her project leaders (all volunteers) began work on the Memorial, they were struck by the lack of information about the women who served during the Vietnam era. Veterans groups and the government had few records of them – there were no networks established and no easy way to find out where these women were.
Today, the Foundation is making steady progress in researching available documentation, but there is still no official, accurate record of the number of women who served during the Vietnam era.
Here’s what we do know…
Over 265,000 military and civilian women served in the armed forces of the United States during the Vietnam War. Approximately 11,000 American military women were stationed in Vietnam, serving within combat alongside their brother soldiers. Close to 90% were nurses in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Others served as physicians, physical therapists, personnel in the Medical Service Corps, air traffic controllers, communications specialists, intelligence officers, clerks and in other capacities in different branches of the armed services. Nearly all of them volunteered.
By 1967, most all military nurses who volunteered to go to Vietnam did so shortly after graduation. These women were the youngest group of medical personnel ever to serve in war time.
An unknown number of civilian women also served in Vietnam as news correspondents and workers for the Red Cross, the USO, the American Friends Service Committee, Catholic Relief Services and other humanitarian organizations. Like their military counterparts, many of these women were wounded in the crossfire. More than 50 civilian American women died in Vietnam.
Many Vietnam women veterans have never told their friends, colleagues or even loved ones about their tour of duty in Vietnam. The majority of them were only in their early 20s when they returned to a country that did not understand what they had just experienced. Although most were there to save lives, they received the same hostile treatment as the returning combat soldiers.
According to a recent Veterans Administration report, 48% of the women who served during the Vietnam conflict will suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during their lives. Yet, few have sought documented help for it. Many women also have suffered health problems associated with Agent Orange exposure. Some have committed suicide.
Thirty years after Diane set out on her inspiring mission, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation remains dedicated to promoting the healing of Vietnam women veterans via the Memorial monument; to identifying the military and civilian women who served during the Vietnam war; to educating the public about their role; and to facilitating research on the physiological, psychological, and sociological issues correlated to their service. The Foundation has the support of every major veterans group in the country including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and more than 40 other diverse organizations.
The Foundation’s Sister Search program is dedicated to locating all American women – both military and civilian – who served during the Vietnam era. The purpose of the Search is to facilitate healing among these veterans, allow them to network with each other, share their stories with the public, and complete essential research on this virtually undocumented veterans group. So far about 12,000 Vietnam women veterans have been located by the Foundation.