‘Whatever it took to save lives’

Graduation day, 1964, Buffalo, Minn. 

Diane Carlson, daughter of a stoic dairy farmer and a country nurse, cannot believe her name is called from among the 93 graduating seniors. The principal and the local American Legion commander summon her and a classmate, Cliff Eng, to step up and receive the post’s annual citizenship award. 

She remembers that moment in vivid detail, as if it happened only yesterday. 

“My mother is sitting next to me, and she looks at me, and my dad looks at me, and I am shocked. Why me? What have I done to be a good citizen? So, I go up on the stage with my classmate, and receive the certificate. I still have it. They gave me a bronze medallion, and it was very heavy. It said, ‘For God and Country,’ and it had The American Legion logo. And they gave me a pin – a small pin to wear. I am in total shock.”

Eng, who would later serve in the Navy, and Evans thought they received the award because everyone in the county loved their mothers, both nurses.

“I go home, and I say, ‘Mom, why did they choose me?’ Of course, my dear mother says, ‘Because you have been a good citizen, Diane. Think of what you did during high school.’ I was not familiar with The American Legion except that there was a post downtown, and they had an American Legion sign on it.”

Four years later, during a rocket attack at an evacuation hospital near Pleiku in the central highlands of Vietnam, the same Diane Carlson, an Army nurse and first lieutenant, reaches into a crib and holds the trembling hand of a young girl severely burned by napalm. 

Soldiers have dived under their beds. IVs and other lines have been yanked out. The floor is slippery with blood. Carlson and a medic have thrown mattresses over those who cannot get onto the floor, to protect them from shrapnel. “Like in the jungle, you do what it takes to survive,” she recalls. “We are doing everything we can to protect them the best way that we can. But the little girl in the unit – we were caring for Montagnard and Vietnamese civilians with napalm burns and injuries incurred in the crossfires of the war – she came into our unit screaming in pain, and when we got hit, she started screaming again because it scared her like the night her village was bombed. I couldn’t throw a mattress on top of her because she was so badly burned. I went for cover under her crib, and I just held her hand. And she screamed herself to death.”

Another moment in vivid detail, as if it happened only yesterday. 

“That night, for me, was Vietnam. It was surreal ... like a bad hallucination. I was one lone nurse with one lone medic, and these patients all needed life-saving care. And we were all they got that night. It was our job to do whatever it took to save their lives.”

Diane Carlson knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I wanted to be a nurse, like my mom. I was very proud of her. She was a wonderful nurse and a wonderful mother ... the Florence Nightingale of the county. Every farmer who did not want to go see a doctor called mother and wanted to know mother’s advice. She was loved.” 

After high school, Diane went without hesitation to a nursing school in Minneapolis.

Her oldest brother was in the Army by then, 101st Airborne Division, and another brother was drafted the following year. “Things are happening in Vietnam,” she recalls. “I am beginning to notice. We had what was called the nurses student lounge, and we could go there and watch TV. I would go every single night at 6 o’clock, and watch the nightly news. My brother had three classmates who were killed in Vietnam by 1966 – all farm boys. And my 4-H buddy, a close friend of ours, was killed in Vietnam.”

She was not frightened by the war. She was drawn to it. “I found an Army nurse recruiter,” she says. “I said to her, ‘I know I want to go to Vietnam. If I pass my state boards, will I be eligible? What do I do to sign up?’

“She said, ‘Well, there’s a nursing shortage right now all over the United States and in the military. We have the Army Student Nurse Program, and if you sign up now, as a junior in nursing, the U.S. government will consider you in the program, and they will pay your tuition and give you a stipend and pay for your books.’

“To have a stipend and have my tuition and books paid, that was a huge bonus. I said, ‘Well, I know I want to go to Vietnam, so how do I sign up?’ She showed me the paperwork. The decision, for me, was made.”

“Mom and Dad, I have something to tell you.”

Diane’s mother, who had gone to nursing school with women who later served in World War II, was not surprised. Diane’s Aunt Ruth had also enlisted in the military during World War II and used the GI Bill to get a doctorate degree.

“I joined the Army. And I am going to volunteer for Vietnam.”

Diane’s father, who rarely showed emotions, made a fist. He slammed it into the tabletop, got up and walked out.

“I was too young and naïve to understand how traumatic this was for a parent. Then, when I told my brothers, they were furious. They didn’t want their sister in the Army. They said the Army is no place for a woman. And I didn’t realize, until I joined the Army, what they meant. At the time, there were still a lot of stereotypes about women in the military.”

At the Hennepin County Hospital’s emergency room during nursing school and while training alongside her mother in Buffalo, shehad seen gunshot wounds, stabbings, domestic abuse, drownings and even some train accidents. “I had seen trauma,” she explains. “I was not afraid of it.” She also did a three-month internship at the VA hospital in Minneapolis. “That cinched it for me. I knew I wanted to take care of veterans. I was in my element.”

“And when I graduate, after I take my state boards, if I pass, I will go to basic training. After that, it will be determined when I go to Vietnam.”

Second Lt. Carlson was 21 when she arrived in country. “The tarmac had big holes in it from mortars and rocket attacks, and we get off,” she remembers, vividly, as if only yesterday. “There are two of us, two female nurses on the plane. There must have been over 250 men onboard. And I can’t tell you how quiet it was when it landed. There wasn’t a sound. I thought about these poor guys. How many were going to come back?

“The pilot says, ‘Nurses off first.’ Two armed guards with bandoliers of ammunition meet us as we come down the steps. ‘Get into the bus, and keep your head down.’”

Black chicken wire over the bus windows. The odor, the heat, the tropical humidity. Replacement center. Orders. Helicopter. Up and out. “My first assignment is the 36th Evac. People say, ‘Great! You’re going to the ocean. It’s on the South China Sea. It’s beautiful there.’

“I thought, that will be cool.”

Really, it wasn’t.

“I am now on a 65-bed unit – a surgical unit, all pre-op and post-op – it’s a Quonset hut. The temperature is 110 degrees. It’s Aug. 3. There is no air conditioning. Every bed is filled. This is 1968.”

Carlson had gone through basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where she and other new Army nurses learned to march, salute and follow orders. She took classes on chemical weapons and how to treat combat wounds in less-than-ideal conditions. “I don’t care how good our training was, or our experience, or how old we were,” she says. “Nothing prepares you for a war zone.”

At Fort Lee, Va., her nine-month first assignment on active duty, she serves in the Army hospital’s orthopedic unit and gets her first taste of Vietnam, treating badly hurt troops sent home from the war. “These young guys could be funny,” she reflects. “They would race in their wheelchairs and re-injure themselves by crashing into each other or falling down stairs; they were just crazy young kids. They were always playing tricks on me.”

Also at Fort Lee, she learns clearly about the invisible wounds of combat.  “One time I was on night duty, and a bed pan that I was trying to put under a patient fell onto the floor. My mistake. Do you know how loud a bed pan is falling onto a tile floor? The whole ward was now awake. The guys all hit the floor. Some actually came out of their pulleys, because of the noise … startled, hypervigilance. I won’t use the swear words they used for me, but they were swearing. Then I realized, these guys are still living back in Vietnam. They are still on guard. They still think they are in Vietnam when they are sleeping. A noise hits, and they’re all awake, and they’re all mad, all agitated.” 

She learns how to awaken a combat soldier to administer medicine. “You stood back and said his name quietly and inched over, very carefully. You did not want to startle a Vietnam vet patient. These are subtle things I learned while I took care of them. It was good training before I left.”

After nine months at Fort Lee, 2nd Lt. Carlson receives orders to deploy. By this time, her oldest brother had been injured and was medically discharged. Her other brother was on the DMZ in South Korea. Diane would be the lone Evans from Buffalo, Minn., with boots on the ground in Vietnam. “I remember that day. It was what I had dreamed of and been working toward”

She goes home on leave to see her parents once more. “In Minnesota on a farm in July, when it rains, you have to get the hay in. You can’t let the hay get wet. I’m a farm girl. I know that. Well, it was going to rain, and so my dad said, ‘Diane, I can’t take you to the airport today, so I’ll say good-bye here.’ 

“My dad had never hugged me or told me he loved me. He was a stoic Scandinavian. Very undemonstrative. In his overalls – I will never forget this – he gave me this big hug, and he started to cry. He said, ‘I have four sons, and I send my daughter off to war.’”

Soon, that daughter is flying out of Virginia, watching smoke billow up from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on her way to Southeast Asia. “I will never forget what I saw. I had been listening to the radio. I had been watching TV. I know there are war protesters. I know there are people burning the flag, which I cannot believe – who would burn the American flag? – and the smoke is rising because of a tent city, where protesters had come to oppose the war. This was my last view of my nation’s capital – my sendoff to Vietnam.

She was undaunted. The war was calling. 

“I didn’t care what the protesters were saying. I still had this sense of citizenship – that, like my brothers, it was my duty to serve – certainly influenced by that American Legion citizenship award and why I had been chosen for it.”

No one had said anything about snakes. One of 2nd Lt. Carlson’s  first patients at the 36th Evacuation Hospital had been bitten by one “in that wonderful South China Sea that I was so happy to be by. It was full of sea snakes. I’m taking care of him, and he does survive – many of them didn’t – and I said to him, ‘What does a sea snake look like?’ 

“And he said, ‘a very bad snake.’

“The next day, I come in, and on the nurses’ station, where I am working to get medication together and check the orders for the day, there’s this big glass gallon jar with a lid on it. Inside of it is a snake. Of course, I jumped. And my patient is laughing hysterically. Now, everybody is laughing. They said, ‘Lieutenant, you wanted to see one…’ These guys went out and got one, just for me. Did they shoot it? Did they have a net? It was dead, thank goodness. We had to laugh. Welcome to Vietnam.”

Carlson  and each of her fellow nurses, corpsmen and doctors treated thousands of troops and civilians in country. “We saw the results of war every day, in every patient, for 12 or 14 hours, whatever the length our shift might be. We went from one to the next to the next to the next to the next. Each one had a story.”

Injuries were often accompanied by burns. She treated ground grunts and dust-off crash survivors, civilians (including children) and officers. As quickly as possible, patients other than civilians were transferred from the evacuation hospital to the 6th Convalescent Center at Cam Ranh Bay to recover if wounds were not so bad as to send them home.

Infections were a constant concern. “If you were wounded, the wounds were always considered dirty,” she says. “Vietnam was a dirty country. The enemy became very crafty. They would lace punji sticks with human feces. A soldier would step on it: instant injury and certain infection. Bone infections were sent home due to the long recovery period. DPCs – delayed primary closures. =Any soldier who went through this experienced excruciating pain. Our skilled medics irrigated the wound, packed the dressings, and on the third day, the surgeons could close the wound. Tons of antibiotics. So, now the wound is healing, and the antibiotics are working, and we take out the stitches and he goes back to his unit … or, he gets the million-dollar wound, and goes home.”

In January 1969, 1st Lt. Diane Carlson is transferred to the 71st Evac Hospital at Pleiku, near the Cambodia border. “Now, I am in the thick of combat. Our hospital is surrounded by concertina wire. We have four guard towers. It’s very dangerous. We have sappers trying to get in. We had one of our guards shot out of a tower. Patients were coming in so fast ... we called it a push. A push meant mass casualties.”

The 71st Evac nurses could be summoned instantly, any time of day or night, by apush. “Our hooches, where the nurses lived, were right next to the hospital. So in seconds, we could get on our boots, jungle fatigues, flak jacket and helmet when the red-alert siren went on. So, we are now on our ward in seconds. 

“If one chopper was coming in, maybe eight patients on that chopper, or if they really threw bodies on top of bodies, maybe 16. But, you know, one chopper was limited. Two choppers, three choppers – I used to call it a gaggle – you got tuned into the sound of those Hueys coming in, and to this day, if a Huey flew over, I would hear it from a mile away, maybe two miles away. When a bunch of choppers came in, you knew it was trouble.

“I don’t think I ever really slept in Vietnam. I think I was always on the verge of sleep, waiting for that call and choppers flying overhead.”

On one particular night, the nurses’ hooches rattle and tremble like the earth is quaking. This is no Huey. It’s a Chinook. The nurses scramble to open a spare ward, an extra 45 beds, and begin setting up IVs. Patients start coming in, “but they are not wounded,” Carlson notices. “All the wounded are in the emergency room. They’re sending these sick guys to my unit. They were dehydrated. They were dirty. There was vomit. Wounds weren’t visible, but their suffering was acute and there wouldn’t be any Purple Hearts passed out for their near-death experience. All I could think about was they had been stranded out there without food, without water. Fevers. My lone corpsman and I couldn’t make diagnoses. We could just get IVs started.”

Deep in hostile territory, they worked by flashlight at night. “The hospital could not be lit because we got hit too often. I could start an IV in the dark, and I did.”

The first lieutenant  wrote her mother about that night. She had forgotten how many sick and dehydrated soldiers they treated until she rediscovered the letter in 1994. Twenty-eight. She still has no idea what had caused their condition. She does remember hooking up IVs in the dark to soldiers whose veins had collapsed. 

Her hoochmate at Pleiku, also from Minnesota, was a nurse named Edie (which means “prosperous in war”) and they bonded, under frequent enemy fire. One morning, they arose to find the hooch next to theirs “blown off the map. Nobody was in that hooch that night. It was unbelievable. They were all on R&R. It was like an act of God that it hit that hooch and not ours.”

As rockets exploded around Diane and Edie one night, they got under their beds and, despite the situation, got the giggles like the schoolgirls they once were. “We’re laughing because Edie, who always tried to keep her hair nice, had curlers in, and she had her helmet on over her head, and she is eating peanut butter and crackers. When Edie is under stress, she eats. ‘If I am going to die, I am going to die happy.’

“Our guys were putting sandbags up to the top of our hooch at daybreak, to protect us from any more incoming. We went to work the next day. Was I afraid of dying? I think by that time, I was so numb, I had resigned myself to it – that I might not come home. It was part of being there. You didn’t worry about the little things like dying. We had so many casualties to take care of, we were never bored. Our patients came first.”

In July 1969, 1st Lt. Carlson’s tour in Vietnam ends. She doesn’t want to go. “Just when we got good at what we were doing, we left. Same with the guys, the infantrymen, the soldiers.  We turned it over to new people. I thought about staying another year, by re-upping, but I knew I needed to go home. I was losing weight. I was exhausted. I needed to rest.”

She remembers vividly, as if it was only yesterday, her last patient in Pleiku. He was on a ventilator and a tracheostomy tube and could not speak. He was too sick to be transferred from the evacuation hospital. To communicate, they wrote notes to each other. “I told him I was leaving. He was agitated. He didn’t want me to leave. I was his nurse. I think he felt abandoned. He had become very attached to me. He wrote me a note that said, ‘Don’t go home.’ I think he knew he was going to die, and he didn’t want to die alone. I felt like I was abandoning him. So, I am leaving Vietnam where I feel like I am abandoning my patients just when I am good at what I am doing.”

Before leaving Vietnam, she is advised to not wear her Army uniform when she lands in the United States. Protesters can be hostile. She wears it anyway.

First stop, Travis Air Force Base. Then on to Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis, Wash. for an examination and discharge paperwork. She is told she has a spot on her lung and is laterdiagnosed with tuberculosis in both lungs and her spleen, probably the cause of her weight loss and frequent coughing. 

She travels alone, in uniform, back to Minneapolis where hecklers greet her at the airport. Two GIs are there. One throws a heckler to the ground. “It’s beyond me. That era. How our society could turn their backs on soldiers, not separating the war from the warrior.”

She rests, recovers and takes a job as a surgical nurse in Minneapolis. Three weeks later, she quits. “I was a fish out of water.” She calls Edie, who has been assigned to Madigan. Carlson drives to Madigan and signs on as a civilian nurse there. Within months she simply re-ups and, promoted to captain, is stationed at Fort Sam Houston, as head nurse in surgical intensive care. “That saved my life. I needed to be taking care of soldiers again. I couldn’t relate to patients who were just having their gallbladders out and complaining about the pain.”

She falls in love with a surgical intern, Maj. Mike Evans. They marry, and when their first child is on the way, Capt. Carlson-Evans retires from the Army, anexpectation for pregnant soldiers. “I wanted to stay in the Army Nurse Corps forever. I loved military nursing.”

Then, vividly, as if it was only yesterday, she returns to Vietnam.

“I didn’t know what a flashback was.”

A new mother, she goes to work part-time as a recovery room nurse at a civilian hospital in San Antonio – pretty slow work compared to Pleiku. Then, one night, the operating room nurse calls Carlson-Evans in to help with an emergency surgery. “There was a small child on the operating room table. The child was hemorrhaging, and the surgeon was throwing bloody sponges at me, into the basin, for me to count. I smelled the blood. I saw the blood. And I’m right back in Vietnam. It was so shocking to me that I stood there frozen. I wasn’t functioning. And the surgeon is now swearing at me, and the operating room nurse is acting like she can’t believe that I am behaving in such a manner. What kind of nurse would just stand there and do nothing?”

The child died on the table.

“I went home, and I started to shake. I think I shook all night. The next day, I went to human resources, and I resigned.”

No one really talked much about post-traumatic stress disorder at that time. Carlson-Evans  knew she had been a  competent nurse in Vietnam and at Brooke Army Medical Center. “I had no idea what was happening to me.” She did not talk about it for years.

Soon, with another child on the way, the family moves to Heidelberg, Germany, where Dr. Carlson becomes chief of the Army’s 130th Station Hospital. The family grows by two more as the 1970s unfold. “So, now I am being a full-time mother, and I am really stuffing my Vietnam experience. The incident in that operating room was so traumatic I didn’t think I could ever go back to nursing. I had gone from being a nurse who felt very skilled and very competent to feeling that I was incompetent and couldn’t do my job.”

In 1982, she attends the dedication ceremony of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. “It was so beautiful and so meaningful – finally the nation was beginning to come to grips with our experience and looking at us as who we really were, not what their stereotypes were, about us. And finding the names on the Wall that I know ... I couldn’t keep those memories away anymore. They just came. It seems like I never had a wake, never had a funeral, for all those men and women who died in Vietnam. One by one, faces would come back. Names would come back. I was grieving for each one of them.”

She estimates that 35,000 of the names on the Wall lost their lives during the time she was in-country. Eight were nurses.

In 1984, when the Three Soldiers bronze statue is dedicated near the Wall, depicting three Vietnam War troops gazing back at the names of the fallen, Carlson-Evans thinks to herself, “it’s a beautiful sculpture, but they forgot someone.”

She tells her husband, “there’s something I need to do. If they are going to have a statue to the men, then we need one for the women. It only took the men two years. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. But I think something needs to be done.”

She appeals to other interested veterans and together they apply for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to accept tax-deductible donations to build a monument to honor women who served in the Vietnam War. She writes articles of incorporation and reaches out to other Vietnam War veterans, male and female. The organization establishes a presence in Washington, D.C., and begins the long journey through commissions, committees, subcommittees, agencies and offices necessary to install anything permanent on the National Mall. She soon learns that to make it happen she will need a mandate from Congress. “So, now I realize I need to go to the veterans service organizations and see if they wouldn’t support this.”

The American Legion would.

A member of American Legion Post 121 in River Falls, Wis., Carlson-Evans asks her fellow Legionnaires how she might get the nation’s largest veterans organization behind the memorial idea. 

“They said, ‘If you want to get anything done in The American Legion, you’d better contact Judge Dan Foley.’ Well, he was in St. Paul. He was an appellate judge, and I called him. I told him I was a veteran. That was all he needed to hear. He said, ‘Come and have lunch with me.’”

Foley, who served as national commander of The American Legion the year Diane Carlson graduated from high school, explains that she will need a resolution passed at her post, then district and department levels. Then he says, ’AYou will come to the national convention. That’s how you get this done.’ I did everything he said.”

In October 1985, The American Legion National Executive Committee unanimously passes Resolution 16 calling on the Department of the Interior, the Fine Arts Commission, the National Capitol Planning Commission and other agencies to dedicate an area near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial “to erect a statue honoring the women who have served during the Vietnam War.” 

With national American Legion support, she writes a strategic plan, assembles a board of directors, continues raising funds and launches a publicity campaign. “My skills from Vietnam, and my nursing skills, really played a huge part in my ability to get things done. First of all, you get it done. You don’t give up. That was my mantra. In Vietnam, I never even thought about giving up.”

It takes nearly 10 years and more than 30 hearings in Washington. “I am up at 3 in the morning writing testimony trying to convince people. And then, I realize why so many people are against this. They don’t know who we are. They don’t know what we accomplished because in Vietnam on the 6 o’clock news, we saw the wounded and the body bags and the soldiers, the chopper pilots and the burning villages, but we never ever saw the nurses behind the scenes or the other women who were serving in other roles. They had no clue what our contribution was, how many thousands of lives we touched, how many thousands of lives we saved. To get their story out, she sends press releases to every U.S. state calling on women veterans to step forward and talk. “That’s when the tide turned.” Thousands of news clippings, and a wave of donations, pour in. 

Still, opposition persists. Carlson-Evans reads that the next thing you know, there will be a “movement to put a woman on Mount Rushmore.” She hears that maybe they should paint the Statue of Liberty pink. Perhaps a woman could be painted into the canvas of Washington crossing the Delaware. The Commemorative Works Act then becomes law in 1986, “making it almost impossible to put a memorial on the Mall.”

Carlson-Evans studies every line of the new law and its restrictions. “One of the statements said that it had to be of pre-eminent historical significance. So, that stayed with me.”

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts disapproves of the design. “They said the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is closed. There will never be another addition. They didn’t want us there at all.”

A proposal to install a statue on the Mall to honor the Vietnam War canine corps, at the same time Carlson-Evans is fighting for the women’s monument, leads one official to publicly question where to draw the line. 

She remembers that comparison vividly, as if it was only yesterday. “The canine corps was fantastic – the dogs and all that – but did he just put us in the same sentence?”

That’s when “60 Minutes” calls. Morley Safer, who had reported in Vietnam and saw what the nurses did, interviews Carlson-Evans and three other nurses. Millions watch the interview, including patients whose lives were saved in the war. Phone calls, letters and telegrams of support storm in.

It comes down to one final hearing with the Department of the Interior. It has to be unanimous. Carlson-Evans prepares a 10-page speech. 

“I had it in front of me, but I didn’t even look at it. I’m just going to say one thing to them: I said, ‘Is it not of pre-eminent historical significance, and lasting significance, that they saved these lives? Our wall would be much higher and much wider without the contribution of these very brave women.’ I sat down. The place went quiet. They took the vote. It was unanimous. It was done.”

On Veterans Day 1993, the statue depicting three uniformed women with a wounded soldier, one nurse looking skyward for a chopper, is dedicated. Thousands, including many who owed their lives to the approximately 10,000 women who served in the Vietnam War, attend. Their experience, now cast in bronze, would be permanent.

“We stood on the shoulders of the World War II veteran women and the Korean War women,” says Carlson-Evans, now a member of The American Legion’s 100th Anniversary Honorary Committee. “The World War I women – the first nurses who went into the military as nurses – they opened doors for World War II. Each generation opens doors for the next. We Vietnam veteran women certainly proved that we measured up. We were brave. We did our job, and we didn’t quit.”

And no matter what haunts them, sometimes in vivid detail, as if it was only yesterday, combat nurses and all women who have bravely served in uniform can stand assured that they have more than fulfilled the responsibilities of what The American Legion recognizes as good citizenship. That may, in fact, be one reason Carlson-Evans has kept her high school award all these years.

 

Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.