Memorial Honoring Women Veterans Planned For Washington
Eight of the names on The Wall belong to
For the most people, that fact doesn't
mean much. Most people, including many male Vietnam veterans,
never really understood that women served with the U.S. forces
in Vietnam, never recognized it as a fact. The lack of
awareness means there is no real significance to those eight
names, and no true recognition of their sacrifice.
There's no exact count of how many
American women actually served during the Vietnam era in
Indochina. The Vietnam Women's Memorial Project accepts
a-figure of 10,000:7,500 in the military and 2,500 civilians.
At the Department of Defense, where they worship statistics,
estimates have ranged from 550 women serving in Vietnam to
The difference in the estimates gives
just one indication of how little recognition women have
received for their role in Vietnam. D.M. Boulay, of the
Women's Memorial Project, observes, "it's like nobody knows we
Given this unusual lack of recognition
it's not surprising that people overtook the fact that eight
American women died in Vietnam. It shouldn't be that way.
For some people, it's not.
Doreen Spelts works for Congressman Peter
Kostmayer's office in Doylestown, PA. In 1984, when Bucks
County decided to build a monument to local residents who died
in Vietnam, Spelts was assigned to liaison duties with the
memorial committee. At one point she found herself wondering
if any American women had died in Vietnam. A pamphlet-from the
National Archives gave her the answer as well as the names of
the eight women, the dates of their deaths, and the fact that
all were nurses (seven had been army nurses, one had been an
air force nurse).
Spelts soon discovered she couldn't let
go of the subject.
"I kept thinking about those eight women.
What were they like? Why did they go to Vietnam? How did they
She realized that she would have to find
out more, or else start losing sleep.
Spelts always knew she could be a writer.
In fact, when she first teamed about the eight women, she had
just joined the ancient and honorable company of unpublished
authors by completing a novel she was unable to sell. "It's
about benign possession," she says of her work. "But not the
demonic kind. Maybe that's why nobody wants to buy it."
Since her fascination with the eight
nurses was deepening into a personal form of benign
possession, the next step was obvious: she began research for
a book about them.
Late at night, and whenever she can find
time on weekends, Spelts mines her slowly building pile of
material until she's confident enough to write. One chapter
for each nurse. So far, she's completed four chapters.
"There are times when my head feels heavy
with nurses," she confessed during a recent conversation.
Spelts dreams about the women of Vietnam
and calls them by their first names. Sometimes, when she's
absorbed in talking about them, she speaks of them in the
present tense, as if they were still alive. And the eight
American women who died in Vietnam are alive. To her.
"They were fantastic women. They were
fantastic people. They were brave, involved, caring. And they
wanted to be there," she says. Spelts explains that women who
served in Vietnam were essentially volunteers; not one of them
was sent against their will. Some people are confused by that
notion. Go to Vietnam? Volunteer?
"These women were committed to their
profession," Spelts says flatly. "They wanted wounded men to
get the best possible care, and they thought they could make a
difference. So they went to Vietnam."
DRAZBA AND JONES
Among the first to arrive in Indochina
were Carol Drazba and Elizabeth Ann Jones,
Both second lieutenants who landed at Vung Tau In November
1965 with the rest of the 51st Field Hospital. It was still
early enough in the war so that the entire detachment was sent
by troop ship from Oakland. Nobody knew definitely where they
were being sent; most were pretty sure It was Vietnam. Their
orders read "Southeast Asia."
Spelts has heard from only one colleague
of the two women, a medical services corps officer who sent
her a long letter detailing the voyage. According to the
doctor, there were continual rumors and an enormous amount of
tension during the trip to Vietnam. Finally, after the 51st
Field Hospital landed, they were called into formation at
dockside and told they would be based in Saigon.
So far, Spelts hasn't been able to learn
much about Elizabeth Ann Jones. She has had better luck with
Drazba. Apparently, the 51st was frequently co-opted by MACV's
public relations operation. It was a standard stop on VIP
tours-In 1965 the light was still shining at the end of the
tunnel. Drazba, who worked as a surgical nurse in the O.R.,
was frequently tapped as part of the guide party on these
excursions, and she enjoyed the duty. She liked meeting the
VIPs, and she tried to make sure they talked to wounded men on
On February 18,1966, Jones accompanied
Drazba on a helicopter flight to a nearby base. Both were
killed when the chopper crashed.
Alexander and Orlowski
Eleanor Grace Alexander and Diane
Orlowski were normally based in Qui Nhon, but they volunteered
for temporary assignments In Pleiku, in November 1967, to help
the evac units there deal with the heavy load of casualties
from the battle of Dak To. That kind of volunteering wasn't
unusual. From Eleanor Alexander, in fact, you might have
Eleanor Alexander's parents are so
committed to Spelts's project that they sent her their
daughter's letters from Vietnam. The letters reveal a young
woman with an intense dedication to her work in Vietnam. All
eight nurses believed what they were doing, Spelts says, but
she feels there was "something about Eleanor, something
special. Something extra, a kind of passion. She lived for
what she was doing."
When Alexander joined the army, she had
already been a nurse for six years, so she was commissioned as
a captain and put in charge of her training detachment at Fort
Sam Houston. It meant she had an extended stay at the base,
and she didn't like It. Spelts notes that a theme runs through
Alexander's letters from Ft. Sam: "I don't want to be here. I
don't want to run a training company. I want to go to Vietnam
and be a nurse. They send other nurses, why won't they send
Eventually they did. Captain Eleanor
Alexander, and her comrade-In-healing, First Lieutenant Diane
Orlowski, were killed when the plane crashed on November 30,
Pamela Donovan's journey to Vietnam was
longer than most. She was born and raised in Ireland; her
family moved to the U.S. when she was a teenager. Her strong
Catholic background led her to try life in a religious
community. Donovan later left, but a strong sense of mission
stayed with her. She had begun the legal process for
naturalization to become a U.S. citizen, but It was
accelerated when she enlisted.
Spelts has only now begun to research
Donovan, but the nurse's: parents, who have since moved back
to England, wrote Spelts to explain why their daughter had
joined our army, and our country.
"She was much affected by battlefield
portrayals on the news, and she shared with us her distress
that all the [American soldiers] were In such dreadful
circumstances. She had learned that all the nurses were
volunteers, and she told us that she had decided she should
Second Lieutenant Pamela Donovan
contracted an unusual Southeast Asian variant of pneumonia at
the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon, where she was
stationed, and died on July 8, 1968.
Annie Ruth Graham
The nurses' section of Arlington National
Cemetery is not easily accessible. It's a stiff walk up the
hill from the Tomb of the Unknowns. Once you get there, it's a
peaceful place, presided over by the statue of a military
nurse. Doreen Spelts went there to see the grave of Lt. Col.
Annie Ruth Graham, who commanded a detachment of the 91st Evac
in Tuy Hoa. Graham was career army: Vietnam was her third war.
When Spelts studied the marker on her grave, however, there
was a glaring error. The marker listed Europe, where Graham
had served in the "Good War," and it listed Korea, but It
didn't mention Vietnam, where she died of a cerebral
hemorrhage on August 14,1968.
Spelts, contacted Arlington headquarters,
and after a period of standard confusion, the U.S. Army Graves
Registration Office contacted her and admitted a mistake had
been made. Spelts was told a new marker would be made and
emplaced, but since she hasn't been back, she doesn't know if
the record has been set straight. Looking back at the
incident, Spelts wonders if it was just a typical snafu, or if
it might have been a mass outbreak of "Vietnam amnesia," the
half-conscious denial that there was such a place as Vietnam.
There was a lot of that going around for
Sharon Lane was the only one of the eight
to die from enemy action. She had been in-country for less
than 10 weeks, but It was enough time for her to become
fascinated by the country and its people. Apparently most new
arrivals at the 312th Evac In Chu Lai, where she was based,
were told they would have to spend some time in the POW wards,
and many resented tending wounded men who were our enemies.
Lane was assigned to POW wards with both Vietnamese civilians
and NVA prisoners, but it didn't bother her.
Spelts, who has access to Lane's letters
home comments: "She tended' people, not politics, and she
liked the Vietnamese. She didn't ask if a casualty was
friendly or hostile. She believed that hurt people needed
help, and helping was her job."
The 312th Evac frequently caught short
rounds from enemy rockets and mortars that were, targeted on a
nearby firebase. On June 8, 1969, one of these rounds killed
First Lieutenant Sharon Lane.
Mary Klinker was at Travis AFB when the
American prisoners of war came home from North Vietnam. In
fact, she helped treat them in a special ward set up
specifically for returnees. About 20 months after that, she
volunteered for a temporary teaching assignment at dark AFB in
It was Spring 1975, and in Vietnam the
sky was falling.
Hue fell on March 25, Da Nang surrendered
on March, 30, and by April 2, the NVA was poised for Its drive
on Saigon. The U.S. began refugee flights, trying to save what
they could. Many of these flights carried children and infants
from orphanages with American connections. Klinker volunteered
to join the on board medical teams on one of these flights. At
Ton Son Nhut, she was assigned to a plane loaded primarily
with adult refugees. Because she loved children, she arranged
a transfer to another flight, this one carrying 62 escorting
adults and 243 Vietnamese infants. The plane, a Military
Aircraft Command C-5A, took off on April 14. Minutes after it
was airborne, a pressure door blew out, damaging the plane's
control systems. The pilot tried to make it back to base, but
crashed less than two miles from the runway.
About half the passengers survived, but
Captain Mary Klinker was not among them.
This was less than three weeks before the
fall of Saigon, which is the generally accepted date of the
end of the war in Vietnam. One of the last men to die in the
tunnel was a woman.
People have started remembering Vietnam
now. There's growing recognition of Vietnam veterans, and an
answering pride on the part of veterans themselves. Sharon
Lane has become a figure in this slow turn toward remembrance.
The hospital in her hometown Canton, Ohio, has named a women's
clinic after her. The local VVA group named their chapter
after her. There's a scholarship fund in her memory, and in
front of the Aultman Hospital stands Canton's Vietnam War
The figure on the memorial is based on
pictures, and drawings of Sharon Lane. It appears to be the
only American war memorial to portray an actual woman.
The Vietnam Women's Memorial Project is
working to raise another statue of a woman. They hope it will
be built near the Wall, at a point that complements the Three
Fighting Men sculpture. The statue will depict a woman
veteran, and it is the most visible part of the project's
"We're an educational effort," explains
D.M. Boulay, chairman, of the board of the project. "We'd like
Americans to recognize how women served in Vietnam, and what
they did." Boulay, who now practices law in Minneapolis,
served as a nurse in Vietnam. She says that she and her fellow
female veterans "were getting awfully tired of people giving
us blank looks and saying 'Women in Vietnam?' as if we'd never
It was that feeling that led Diane
Carlsen Evans to establish the project, of which she is now
president. Evans remembers flying home after a year in evac
hospitals at Vung Tau and Pleiku. And she remembers meeting
the same kind of non-reception that many veterans encountered.
The ignorance, Stereotyping, lack of understanding were all
the same. No one recognized that service in Vietnam might have
value. At the hospital where Evans worked after she left the
army, she was told she would have to be checked at three
points before she could actually start an intravenous drip.
She tried to explain it wasn't necessary; during a single
night at Pleiku she started 30 IVs, working by flashlight and
touch. The explanation died in her mouth when she saw that her
supervisor neither knew nor cared what nurses did in Vietnam.
Even at her parent's home, a dairy farm
in Buffalo, MN, she felt guarded and out of place. Her sister
remembers that Evans seemed distant and withdrawn. Evans
waited for her family to ask about Vietnam and they waited for
her to bring it up. Somehow, it was never discussed.
Evans became a closet Vietnam veteran.
She stopped referring to her Vietnam experiences outside her
family circle. She would tell her brothers and sisters about
"the good times, the happy times, like R&R," she recalls. "But
I'd only talk about events, not feelings." She volunteered
nothing to other people. Sometimes, when driving by herself,
she would find herself crying.
Where Are The Women?
Evans came out of the closet at the
dedication of the Wall, in November 1982. Ten months later,
she attended Minnesota's state salute to Vietnam veterans with
the specific objective of meeting other women veterans. She
didn't; she was the only woman there. She did, however, make
contact with sculptor Roger Brodin, who served with the U.S.
Marines in Vietnam. Among the artworks on display at the
salute was Brodin's The Squad, a group of
maquettes-small-scale original versions of sculpture.
"These were the men I'd served with, that
I'd taken care of," Evans says, "and they were portrayed with
such dignity, in such a beautiful way …"
Evans knows what Vietnam was like. She
remembers fighting to save men who were so badly wounded they
begged to be allowed to die. She had always felt that Vietnam
veterans deserved much more than they had received, so she was
pleased at the slow rise of recognition for them. At the same
time, she was plagued by the feeling that something was
"Where are the women?" she remembers
asking herself. "It was a though we'd become invisible." That
sense of absence gnawed at her until she found herself
wondering if she truly was a Vietnam veteran.
These feelings emerged when she called
Roger Brodin to thank him for The Squad. Brodin agreed that
some kind of recognition for women who served in Vietnam was
important and asked Evans to his studio to talk about it. This
was the start of a series of conversations that lasted for
hours and eventually grew into the figure of the woman
veteran. There was general agreement on two points: the figure
should appear feminine, and she should look like she was
returning from a war, not going to one. Brodin found a model
and dressed her in the jungle boots and fatigues Evans had
worn in Vietnam.
"They're not new issue," Evans points
out, "they're old and tired and there was a big rip under one
arm." The figure carries a feeling of great weariness, as well
as great compassion and resolve. One veteran, studying a
close-up of the statue mused, "she looks like you could tell
her anything, and she'd say, "hey, it's all right."
As the maquette for the statue neared
completion, Evans and a number of male veterans who had become
involved in the effort decided to call a meeting to discuss
future action. Evans says, "everyone felt there was only one
place that was right for the statue; she belonged at the
Wall." The meeting, in April 1984, introduced Evans and D.M
Boulay. The two of them have been a team ever since. With
several male supporters, they incorporated the project in May
1984, and went out on the road to see if anyone shared their
The Women's Vietnam Memorial Project has
received support from VVA, the VfW, and the American Legion.
Evans, who went to conventions in 1985 to help marshal this
backing, says they met "a certain amount of skepticism, but a
lot of encouragement and help also emerged, and that kept us
About 100 volunteers, both men and women,
have become involved in the project, and there's been an
outpouring of positive response on the part of Vietnam
At present, the statue exists only as a
maquette and as three small-scale bronze replicas, which the
project sends to public exhibitions and presentations. "Seeing
is believing," explains Evans, "and she's what we're all
about. "D.M. Boulay adds, "I think sometimes she's a lot more
convincing than anything we can say." Both women stress that
the statue is not a monument solely to nurses, but to every
woman who served in Vietnam. Why the figure of a nurse, then?
"We had to choose somebody," Boulay
points out. "In Vietnam, there were women photo-interpreters,
air traffic controllers, logistics specialists. . .No matter
who we chose, somebody would have been left out. So we settled
on a nurse because she's representational. She stands for all
Evans notes that the Three Fighting Men
are also representational-even though they are dressed like
infantry. Everyone accepts that they stand for the men who
served in thousands of other specialties as well.
This spring the Women's Vietnam Memorial
Project received the essential backing of the Vietnam
Veteran's Memorial Fund, which built the Wall. The time is now
coming for negotiations on the necessary approvals from three
federal agencies and for special legislation from Congress.
And this spring the project launched a fund-raising effort to
gather the $1 million needed to construct and place a
full-sized version of the statue at the Wall, and to landscape
and maintain the site. So far, Evans reports, they've raised
"We don't understand why we're not more
controversial," remarks Boulay. Everyone thinks we've got a
It may simply be a case of an idea whose
time has come. Many people think it's, actually long overdue.
In Vietnam women helped make sure our soldiers got fed,
supplied and paid. When the dust-off ships-came in with their
loads of casualties, there were women waiting with the aid
parties to heal and comfort. And the aftermath of the war has
been the same for both men and women.
Doreen Spelts, who has talked with many
Vietnam veterans, both men and women, feels there is very
little difference in the post-war problems of men and women.
There is the same inability to open up and communicate and the
same high rate of divorce and substance abuse.
"It's all the same hell," she observes,
"there's enough to go around."
"War changes people," Spelts says. "It's
supposed to. You don't go through hell for a year and come out
a happy, healthy person." For the people who went through it,
she adds, "Vietnam is like a shackle in the mind, there's no
getting away from it." It can be eased and loosened a little,
however, and public recognition is part of the process, so she
chases leads and writes letters and works on her book, trying
to loosen the shackle.
Public recognition is also the goal of
the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project.
"We don't want glorification," Diane
Evans says. "I don't know a single woman who went to Vietnam
for the glory of it. But we do want public awareness that what
we did was valuable. And we want to be able to be publicly
proud of what we did."
Evans is haunted by an encounter with a
Vietnam nurse who asked her: "Diane, do .you think anyone will
even give a damn?"
Evans, Boulay and their, supporters
believe people will give a damn if they are given the chance,
and so they keep toiling on their project, trying to give that
chance to the rest of us.
After all, it was a woman's war too.