Women in Wartime: A Nurse Remembers

By Diane Carlson Evans 

My plane touched down in Vietnam on August 2, 1968. The blast of heat and the smell of jet fuel hit me first, then the sight of GIs with MI6s and bandoliers of ammunition slung across their strapping chests. The pilot ordered the two nurses out of the plane first.

After three days at the 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Binh, I choppered to the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau, a seaside resort town about an hour’s drive from Saigon where U.S. soldiers often spent their in-country R & Rs.  As the door gunner locked his eyes on the ground I saw red crosses painted on Quonset hut-styled buildings.

sc001eb069My first day in the 60-bed unit was 105 degrees with no air-conditioning.  Not even on the burn ward. Only the OR, ICU and Recovery Room had this luxury. Huge floor fans chased around the fetid air.  For me it didn’t matter but it did for wounded GIs whose suffering was greatly compounded by the heat.  They deserved better.

I was used to seeing trauma in Minnesota. But there it was explicable; farm mishaps, auto accidents, drownings, and homicides.

In Vietnam, I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of our young soldiers, Vietnamese and Montagnard civilians who had been blown apart by heinous weapons of war. I hadn’t realized how much loving the soldiers would make me hate the war. I wanted to know what they were dying for.

Eddie Lee Evenson is the only patient whose name I remember from my year in Vietnam. Other nurses have told me that they, too, have that one name that symbolizes all the rest.

Eddie was mine.  He was from Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Angular and strong with a ready smile he endeared himself to the corpsman and nurses.  He came into the 36th with relatively minor injuries; after loaded with antibiotics and a delayed primary closure of his wounds, he had his sutures removed and was sent back to his infantry unit.  In the meantime, helping us out relieved his high energy and boredom.

No job was too small for Eddie. He cheerfully emptied bedpans, took blood to the lab, and helped ambulate patients using crutches. Eddie was sweet and respectful, and felt like another brother to me. When he went back to the field, he made me promise to write to him.  We exchanged a few letters.

I was transferred to the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku. It was there that the manila envelope arrived. Eddie was dead. Eddie was dead. Eddie was dead.  No.  Eddie was too good to die.  But the letter I sent him had not been opened.  The commanding officer sending me this news said the letter was found on his body.

Mail call was a precious time.  He hadn’t opened his mail yet.  Like the rest of us I knew he’d wait for the right time to open a letter and savor the words inside. I vowed to myself that I’d never get another message like this; I would never get as close to another soldier as I had to Eddie.

. . .

Forward to my first visit to The Wall:  the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, November 11, 1982, and to a flashback that day.

It is an autumn morning in Washington, D.C.  A cool, dry breeze sweeps the Mall as I join a crowd that grows by the second and pushes me along the path.  Though people surround me, I feel alone. If there is sound, I am not hearing it.  If there is a feeling to this place, I am not experiencing it.  Not yet.  I am numb.

Ahead waits The Wall of black granite – carved with the names of more than 58,000 souls.  Though I know that it is The Wall that has brought me, summoned me, to this place, I still deny its power and meaning.

Diane Carlson Evans

Diane Carlson Evans

Beneath my feet, grass sprouts in the spaces between the gray stones.  A woman walks in front of me, head down, wary of the uneven ground. Suddenly one of her spiked heels slips off the stones and into the soft grass.  The heel is trapped, and she stumbles. At her side, a bearded man in old army-issue boots, who himself is walking with a cane, moves awkwardly to steady her.  I watch the woman’s feet, and her shoe. I notice his cane and his boots.  But I cannot look up.  A kind of gravity pulls me along the path, down a slope, toward the black stone.

I stop when the granite plates loom before me, but still I cannot look up.  Instead I gaze at the sandals, tennis shoes, penny loafers, flats, and boots.  Some stop. Others turn a bit, and I know that some of the people around me are embracing.   I focus on the combat boots.  I feel dizzy.  Do I know the man in those boots?  How about the one to my left?  To my right?  Are any of them my patients who still live in my mind?

I feel the black granite near me and wish I could remember more names. Back then I only knew him by his last name or his first, or didn’t know it at all.  There were hundreds.  I have two in mind. Would I find them?  My heart races and I my stomach churns. I’m miserable in crowds.  There must be thousands of people here, yet I feel alone. I left my husband and kids at home; I went to Vietnam alone, and I’ll do this alone.

I wonder now about my own boots, my black leather combat boots.  They must still be in the attic on the farm.  Mother might have thrown them away.  Dad definitely wouldn’t have.

What had my parent’s experienced back on the farm in Minnesota when I was in Vietnam?   I know the rhythm of their comings and goings, but I don’t know what they felt. I had gone away, and come home, and we never really talked about it.  The same was true of my husband and children. They had never seen my uniform or boots, my medals, my photographs.  They had never seen me cry.

My boots, if they still existed, would be worn out, a relic of the past.  They would probably be caked with red dirt from the Pleiku highlands.  They would be stained with my last patient’s blood splattered on them. I would not think about that, but I wanted to look at them, hold them, and confirm that I actually wore them.  I had become so detached from that time that I often wondered, “Was I really there?” The boots could prove it.  I realized that I was obsessed with boots.  There were hundreds of them around me. Why weren’t these guys wearing regular shoes? Vietnam was 12 years ago.

I brought one thing with me to D.C.; my boonie hat, with patches from the 44th Medical Brigade, 71st Evacuation Hospital.  Finally I push it back on my forehead a little as I finally look up at The Wall, and find the names I came for — Eddie Lee Evenson, Panel 28 W, Line 17 and Sharon Lane, Panel 23W, Line 112.

As I touch Eddie’s name, a man wearing a tattered, faded field jacket gently places his hand on my shoulder, and turns to look directly at me.

“Were you a nurse in Vietnam?”

“Yes,” I admit.

“I’ve waited 14 years to say this to a nurse,” he continues. His voice wavers, and tears pool in his eyes.  “Thank you. I can never thank you enough. I love you. Thank you for being there.”  These simple words were the most powerful, profound words that I will ever remember.  They were precious words, to him and to me.  This wounded soldier had lived; he survived and he was grateful.

But there was one who didn’t live and I would never find his name to touch. I close my eyes; I’m with him now, standing at his bedside.  I move the blankets to find his hand; I draw it close to me. I hold it gently, I don’t let go.  I feel his youth.  I notice the contrast; a young black man holding my hand; I press gently asking him to do the same if he hears me.  He does. I move to his face, concealed by dressings, and speak softly to him.  The night is bleak. I tell him I’ll be there through the night – that I won’t leave.  I ask for God.  At the end, I leave him, never knowing his face – only the shroud and his touch, which belongs to me.  I am haunted by a black man I’ve never seen; sheathed in white.   Sheathed in white, covering the blast delicately swirled around his face, chest, arms, legs, all tinged with red I hold his hand while his blood turns cold. He gave me his hand and soul to hold that night.  I don’t remember his name.

I feel something break inside of me.  For the first time since Vietnam, I cry. I cry for Eddie, for Sharon, for the soldier embracing me, for the young black man who gave me his hand and his soul to treasure and because I cannot hold back a lifetime of tears any longer.

I had been terrified of crying, afraid that once I started I wouldn’t stop. Behind the tears was anger at the injustice, the futility, and the betrayals of war.  I finally had touched Eddie’s name as he had touched my life the day he was wounded, and Sharon’s.  She was killed in Chu Lai on June  8, 1969, while I went about my duties in Pleiku. Women do go off to war, and they may die there too.

sc001f52e3The Vietnam veteran who embraced me that day near The Wall of names may never know that his act of love and kindness pressed me to begin embracing my own past.   I knew that my life would never be the same again. I must have lived for a reason.  There was something left, something yet that I had to do with my life.   In a spiritual and mysterious moment, Eddie and Sharon gave me permission to live, to feel and show emotion and see again the faces of war.  There would be a price for that. My battle with the Vietnam War was just beginning.

Diane Carlson Evans is the founder and president of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation. She served in the Army Nurse Corps, 1968-69,  in the Vung Tau and Pleiku provinces.