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Women of the Vietnam War

7 March 2016 by Sam

nurse in a hospital with patients

1st LT Diane Carlson Evans at a hospital in Vietnam, 1968. Courtesy of Diane Evans

Photographer Lee Karen Stow will travel to Washington DC soon as part of the continuing  Poppies: Women and War. project. You can find out about the evolving project in her upcoming talk on Saturday 19 March, as part of our International Women’s Day events. Here she tells the story of some of the women she is going to meet: 

“What became known as the ‘Vietnam War’ was fought between the communist regime of North Vietnam and its southern allies, known as the Viet Cong, against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. US troop numbers began increasing in Vietnam in March 1962 and a bloody, protracted war ensued with huge losses on all sides. An estimated 4 million people died, including 58,307 Americans, before the withdrawal of US troops in March 1973.

According to the blockbuster movies and the majority of books about the Vietnam War, only men were involved. The stories of an estimated 10,000-15,000 military women and civilian women who served in support of the US Armed Forces, in-country in Vietnam have, until recent years, been left unsaid and unheard. Not even the US Government knows exactly how many women served for their country.

For returning women veterans, being spat on at the airport was just the beginning of their private aftermath. Only men could carry the title ‘Vietnam Vets’. So they faded into silence and tried to get on with lives, careers and families, burying their inward and outwards scars, shame or pride, horror or honour… all mixed up with memories of friendships forged and loves found. Many women have since died without daring to reveal they served in Vietnam, or how it changed their lives, for better or worse, but certainly forever. Nor did they receive recognition from the country they served.

Now, half a century since the first women landed in Vietnam to take up their duties, their voices are being heard thanks to their own courage to end the silence.

I shall meet some of these women when I travel to Washington DC. In September I plan to be in Vietnam itself, meeting Vietnamese women who fought, and suffered, in what became the most controversial war in modern history.

First, a tribute to the women of the US Army Nurse Corps, the Registered Nurses – all of them officers – who tended to the sick, injured and dying on all sides. Three Army nurses arrived in Saigon in 1956 and by 1968, 900 nurses were working in 23 Army hospitals and a convalescent centre. By 1973, when the last troops left, 5,000 nurses, a great majority of them female with the average age of 24, had served. As well as treating the severely wounded from the battlefields, they treated diseases, fevers and infections. They held the hands of the dying and, during off duty hours, worked at the orphanages.

Half a century later, women who were there, in Vietnam, are increasingly finding the courage to share their memories of one of the most controversial wars in modern history.

1st LT Diane Carlson Evans served with the US Army Nurse Corps in 1968 and 1969 at the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau and the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku.  She contributed this poem to an anthology of poetry ‘Visions of War, Dreams of Peace, Writings of Women in the Vietnam War’ (edited by Lynda Van Devanter and Joan A Furey 1991). Because often, poetry is the only way to convey what cannot be said out loud and as a way of chipping away at deep-rooted pain.

woman by a statue of a nurse tending a wounded soldier

Diane at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington DC, which she worked to establish in 1993, two decades after the end of the War.

Left Behind

I search my soul
And memories of war
To find that lost space
That part of me that’s gone
Left in Vietnam so many
Years ago and hoping
Someday to find it and
Make me whole again
I didn’t leave behind
A limb, an arm or a leg
What is it then that’s gone
It can’t be seen and
Perhaps just as a lost
Limb it can never be
Retrieved

By Diane Carlson Evans, 1984

Find out more on the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation website.”

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