VietNam Nurses: Comforters

“We don’t heal alone. We have to share our stories. We have to talk to each other. We have to listen to each other.”   Captain Diane Carlson Evans, Army Nurse, VietNam era

The blustery winters of Minnesota create long snowy days and starlit freezing nights. Ideal weather for the nimble fingers of stitchers to hand-sew heirloom quilts. Diane Carlson Evans snuggled under piles these wool filled comforters as a child growing up on a dairy farm during the 1960’s. As Diane entered her teens, she watched her brothers and classmates volunteer or be drafted into the Vietnam War. After graduating from a Minneapolis nursing school in 1968, Diane enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps. “I just felt a real compulsion that I needed to go there with so many people in my community, this farming community, having to go to Vietnam.” At the age of 21, she began her tour of duty in Vung Tau.

Carlson Evans, fresh from country living, recognized the Midwest values in the nurses that she labored beside. At the 36th Evacuation Hospital, the traits of neighbors from her hometown were apparent in the courage and endurance displayed by the Army nurses. “It was a very intense year because we weren’t prepared for these kinds of wounds or medical diseases.” Most of all, Carlson Evans felt the care that the staff expressed to each other and their commitment to helping one another get home alive despite fraying nerves and emotions. The kind of community spirit found in small towns in Minnesota that binds people together in purpose.

Much of Carlson Evans’ work included the 71st Evacuation Hospital in the jungle where the fighting was fierce. “Our hospital is surrounded by concertina wire. We have four guard towers.” There she lived on adrenaline while working long, fast-paced shifts with wounded, ill and dying soldiers. “Our casualties came right from the fields.” In hostile territory, the nurses worked with a flashlight at night and could start an IV in the dark. In 1969, Carlson Evans was discharged from the army and found a civilian nursing job.

But the war haunted her. She grew angry when hearing about veterans facing hostile anti-war sentiments after she experienced their suffering and sacrifices. Not able to fit into civilian nursing, she re-upped and cared for wounded soldiers. Meeting her husband and getting married helped this head nurse to suppress her ragged memories. Leaving the Army as a captain to become a mother, life surrounded her in a comforting hug like the scrappy patchwork quilt from her mother’s cedar chest.

Then, in 1982, Carlson Evans attended the dedication of the Vietnam Wall. Like other vets, she found the names of people she had known, two nurses killed in service. She traced their names on the black granite as disturbing memories crept into her heart and mind. “It seems like I never had a wake, never had a funeral, for all those men and women who dided. One by one, faces would come. I was grieving for each one.”

The trickle of flashbacks grew out of control. “I’m having dreams and nightmares…I had to start dealing with them.” Come to grips with incidents like the night when the hooch next to hers was blown off the map. “The nurses were all on R&R. It was like an act of God that it hit that hooch and not ours.”

Two years later, a statue depicting Vietnam-era men was dedicated in Washington, DC. Carlson Evans attended the event.

“In that instant when I saw that statue, I thought, ‘but they’ve forgotten the women’. They’ll think only men were there.” That was the year that she began a push for a memorial for the women who served. It took seven years of testimony before three federal commissions and two congressional bills before permission was granted for the memorial. It took a community of people working together to accomplish this goal.

Artist Glenna Goodacre of Santa Fe, New Mexico, designed the 7 foot bronze sculpture. The statue depicts an injured soldier being cradled by a female nurse. A standing woman is looking to the sky as if for a medical evacuation helicopter, or perhaps divine help from God. An anguished kneeling woman holds an empty helmet. The statue was dedicated on November 11, 1993.

The Vietnam Women’s Memorial honors the 265,000 women who served during the Vietnam era. “It validates who we are and what we did,” says Carlson Evans with a sigh.

Carlson Evans is pleased with the display because it is also a place of peace and healing for the men who were treated by the nurses. A space where the comfort of a hug is wrapped around the raw and wounded emotions of a generation.

Like comfort from a Minnesota quilt whose binding is securely sewn from the roots of the community.

PM Quilting, Sunburst, Montana

“For me, It’s 20 years of helping to heal the wounds of my sister veterans.” Diane Carlson Evans, VietNam nurse and organizer for memorial

“The unsung heroes are the nurses who took care of the soldiers in the Vietnam War. I was one of these soildiers…I can’t say enough about those nurses and wish them all God’s blessings.”  John A. Kellner Sr., Alden, N.Y.


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