Stephen Woody

Stephen Woody, columnist

Simply put, Diane Carlson Evans spent 50 years composing and writing her compelling new book, "Healing Wounds: A Vietnam War Combat Nurse’s 10 Year Fight to Win Women a Place of Honor in Washington, D.C."

The book comes at the reader in parts: part memoir, part history lesson, part catharsis, part mission. It’s a reckoning as well. Evans was a trauma and surgical nurse at two Vietnam hospitals; she is the founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.

At the book’s denouement, it is a story of resilience, tenacity, triumph. The book was released right after Memorial Day last month and is co-written with journalist and author Bob Welch.

Her narrative is direct and compassionate, something you’d expect from a Registered Nurse. It’s one of those books where you dog-ear the pages, write in the margins and keep; you send a copy to friends who served there. One Vietnam vet friend of mine said he began to shed tears on page eight and could read it only in doses.

• She writes of a Montagnard child who screams herself to death in her burn ward. This is right after Evans arrived in Vietnam, July 31, 1968. Evans was 21, fresh from her family’s Minnesota dairy farm, nursing school, a newly commissioned lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps.

• Evans recalls holding the hand of a dying soldier for hours until he passes, the hand going cold.

• Thirteen years after her duty, she opens her footlocker. She had tucked it away in the attic with the wording DO NOT OPEN. In an instant, she could smell the monsoon rains, jungle rot, burned flesh. Inside are trinkets from soldiers she cared for and her boots -- they’re specked with blood and covered with the sandy red dust of Pleiku, home of the 71St Evac Hospital where she eventually rose to captain and was the head nurse.

• She writes candidly of her confrontation of what was to later be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). How she spent her first night back in the U.S. in her farmhouse bedroom on the floor covered by her Army-issue poncho.

• Chronicled, too, are the 10 years of testimony before committees and Congress, incessant fundraising and assaults on her character and motives. The VWM is in recognition of the 10,000-plus women who served in Vietnam – all of them volunteers -- not only as nurses, but as flight controllers, intelligence analysts, administrators.

• She writes of her first speech to fundraise in front of small VFW audience. Convinced, they joined her with support. When she began her sweeping effort in 1984 to place a memorial recognizing women on the National Mall, the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial – The Wall – had been dedicated just 18 months earlier. Sculptor Maya Lin’s work was controversial, regarded as a “scar” on the national psyche, that it was “defeatist.” Two years later, The Three Soldiers, a more traditional statue, was dedicated to help ameliorate the discomfort caused by The Wall. However, Evans is repeatedly and loudly told that women who served in Vietnam didn’t “deserve” a memorial. That if women get one, Congress will have to find space to honor “K-9 service dogs.”

• The measure eventually passed by a 96-1 vote. Some $5.5 million was raised, all of it through private donations. An appearance with Morley Safer, a Vietnam War correspondent on ’60 Minutes,’ boosted awareness and enlightenment. Vietnam veterans like vice-president Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry championed the cause. It was dedicated Nov. 11, 1993.

• She writes of meeting a Vietnam-era physician who was in the Army as a surgeon and falling in love with someone who understood her plight and her ambition to recognize women. Together, they raised four children and are blessed with seven grandchildren. The Evans’ live in Helena, Mont.

“The Wall was ours, a memorial to our war dead. The footlocker was mine, a memento of my personal war. A war that I was trying to leave behind, not make room for in a house already too tight with a husband, four kids, a dog – and wounded soldiers in the night.”

--Excerpt from ‘Healing Wounds’’

••••••

I know Evans. She came to Sheridan, Wyo. to introduce a stage play about Vietnam nurses, ‘Piece of My Heart,’ that was touring nationally. Then, a second visit to dedicate the only public replica of the VWM at Sheridan College. The college has become a leader for providing education and transitional services to veterans. We talked recently.

“The only good memoir,” said Evans, “is an honest one. I had to reach back into memories I didn’t want to share. I had tucked them away. I was surprised at how clear they were.”

Evans, 72, said veterans encouraged her to “be brave. To dig deep. To tell the whole truth.”

Since the book’s publishing, said Evans, she’s received hundreds of notes and letters from soldiers she cared for and helicopter pilots she flew with. Women veterans have written as well, even though “many women didn’t want anything to do with it. They wanted to move on. I believed we needed to heal. We needed the power of a memorial.”

Glenna Goodacre of Santa Fe was the sculptor. Some of the artist’s work includes statues of President Ronald Reagan and the design of the Sacajawea coin. Ms. Goodacre died earlier this year.

There is a local connection. Lt. Lynn Morgan (Ruyle) served with Evans as a surgical nurse at the 71st Evac Hospital in Pleiku. After the war, she moved to Montrose with her husband, Robb Ruyle, and together they started Powderhorn Industries. She was an emergency room nurse at Montrose Memorial Hospital and was elected to two terms on the Montrose County school board with three years as president. Lt. Ruyle was awarded the Bronze Star for her service in Vietnam and was a speaker at the annual VWM ceremonies in 2003.

“I knew of Lynn and respected her dedication to soldiers,” said Evans. “We were so busy that I didn’t get to know her. I remember her smiling.” Evans writes of 12 to 16-hour shifts, usually six days a week. Evans was in country 356 days.

Eight nurses were killed in rocket attacks and helicopter crashes. Many others were damaged psychologically by the war. These days, Evans often speaks to veteran’s groups, schools, civic and humanitarian organizations.

“Many of the letters,” said Evans, “just say thanks.”

It’s available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble Booksellers.

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