|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Diane Carlson Evans’
Diane Carlson Evans—who will receive the VVA Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2022 National Leadership & Education Conference in August—has three compelling life stories to tell. And she tells them exceptionally well in her eye-opening 2020 memoir, Healing Wounds: A Vietnam War Combat Nurse’s 10-Year Fight to Win Women a Place of Honor in Washington, D.C. (Permuted Press, 267 pp., $27, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle), which she wrote with the help of journalist and author Bob Welch.
Evans’ three compelling stories chronicle her life-changing one-year Vietnam tour of duty in the burn unit and pre- and post-operative units of two Army hospitals during the height of the war; the emotional turbulence that followed her home and did not go away for decades after the war; and the ten-year fight she led against tremendous odds to build a memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to American women who served in the Vietnam War.
Inspired by her mother Dorothy to go into nursing, Diane Carlson—who grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Buffalo, Minnesota—worked in her local hospital as a teenager. She enrolled at St. Barnabas School of Nursing in Minneapolis after graduating from high school in 1964. The following year, while still in nursing school, she signed up for a two-year hitch in the Army Nurse Corps.
After getting her nursing degree, Diane Carlson went on active duty, starting with the Army Medical Service Officer Basic Course at Fort Sam Houston, after which she spent nine months working at Kenner Army Hospital at Fort Lee in Virginia. She arrived in Vietnam on July 31, 1968, one of four nurses on a flight with 250 men. The women were under orders to wear their Class A uniforms, complete with skirt, “heels, nylon stockings, and a purse,” she writes. “I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable on that flight if they’d duct-taped me in a gunny sack.”
Evans gives a perceptive and evocative recounting of her tour of duty working at the Army’s 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau and the 71st Evac in Pleiku. It is an illuminating depiction of what life was like for American medical personnel—including some 10,000 military nurses—who dealt with the carnage of war on a daily basis in Vietnam. Healing Wounds is the most moving account of that aspect of the war that I’ve read since Lynda Van Devanter’s pioneering Home Before Morning burst out of her word processor in 1983.
The second exceptional part of the book is Evans’ brutally frank detailing of her emotional state after coming home from the war in July of 1969—and for decades after that. “When Diane came home,” her sister Nola said, “it was as if she wasn’t my sister anymore.” Evans agreed, saying she “wasn’t a lot of things anymore.” In Vietnam, “even if things went crazy, I’d adjusted to the new normal. Now I was having to adjust to another new normal that, in some ways, was harder than the adjustment in Vietnam.”
People “had no idea what it was like to hold a dying soldier’s hand while it went from warm to cold. Or to be awakened by the sound of chopper blades right over your hootch. Or to have a Montagnard child you’re literally holding in your arms scream herself to death. People didn’t understand—not because vets weren’t willing to talk about it, but because no one showed any genuine interest.”
So, “like so many others,” she writes, “I carried on in silence, the layers of guilt for doing so building up like Wisconsin snowfalls that freeze and thaw and are replaced by more of the same.”
Evans found herself “lost in a personal typhoon” of emotional turbulence. She suppressed her horrific war experiences so deeply that she never spoke about them to her husband and never allowed herself to cry for decades. All the while she was tormented by what she saw and experienced in Vietnam, replete with flashbacks and nightmares.
What “only made it worse,” Evans says, “was that there was nobody I could talk to about such feelings. In 1969 there were no support groups of Vietnam vets.” That situation didn’t change for Evans until 1982 when she went to Washington to take part in the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In front of the newly built Wall she experienced her “first-ever ‘thank you’ in person,” from a veteran who expressed his gratitude for her service with a hug. She met other women who had served as nurses and paid a personal tribute at The Wall to a soldier she treated who later died, and to Sharon Lane, one of eight American nurses who perished in the war.
Soon after returning home from Washington, Evans joined a veterans’ therapy group—the only woman among nine men— then helped lead other groups for two years. In 1983 she became a founding member of VVA Chapter 5 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and for years was a forceful veterans advocate. That advocacy, and her personal experiences in the war and after coming home, led Diane Carlson Evans to the idea of getting a memorial built at The Wall in Washington to honor the women who served in the war.
That idea, supported fully by her husband Mike and four children, led to the 10-year effort that Evans chronicles in the last half of the book. It’s a story that hasn’t been fully told before. Evans and Welch tell it thoroughly and bluntly, not sparing naming people who wrongheadedly stood in the way of the memorial, as well as people and organizations (including Vietnam Veterans of America) that worked to make the memorial a reality.
It gives nothing away to say that this book has a happy ending. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated in 1993. Diane Carlson Evans continued to chair the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation until 2015.
Today, she writes, “I feel peace. The grace I used to pray for when the causalities came in has been showing up more frequently. Prayers have been answered. Faith restored. Joy permitted. Guilt quieted.”
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