Vision accomplished: the Vietnam Women’s Memorial

“That my hands can shape the clay which might touch the hearts and heal the wounds of those who served fills me with humility and deep satisfaction. I can only hope that future generations who view the sculpture will stand in tribute to these women who served during the Vietnam era.”

-       Glenna Goodacre, sculptor of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, 1993

The healing sculptor Glenna Goodacre envisioned is coming to fruition.

Fulfillment of her hope was on vivid display Nov. 10-11 at the National Mall in Washington D.C. where Veterans Day was celebrated as a tribute to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial and all it means for women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam War and since then, along with civilian women who operated in support of hazardous wartime military operations.

Thirty years have passed since the memorial was dedicated.

The battle to achieve buy-in and authorization was controversial; opponents and critics turned former Vietnam War combat nurse Diane Carlson Evans’ concept into a 10-year ordeal that ended on Veterans Day 1993 in a nationally televised ceremony attended by thousands. The American Legion supported the project every step of the way, starting with passage of a resolution at Post 121 in River Falls, Wis., to the Department of Wisconsin’s blessing and then a national American Legion resolution in 1985.

The Legion continued its support, backing Carlson Evans and the memorial project through multiple hearings and debates as the years progressed, leading up to the 1993 completion.

“When this monument is finished, it will be for all time a testament to a group of American women who made an extraordinary sacrifice at an extraordinary time in our nation’s history,” Gen. Colin Powell said at the groundbreaking ceremony on July 29, 1993. “You went. You served. You suffered. The names of eight of your sisters are etched on The Wall for having made the supreme sacrifice. And yet your service and your sacrifice have been mostly invisible for all these intervening years.”

Opponents of the project had attempted to keep it that way.

Early obstacles – including newspaper editorials ridiculing the project, congressional debates questioning its purpose and federal panels that scoffed at its design – now occupy a fading chapter of history.

Today, the memorial is seen by over 4 million visitors a year.  It has come to stand as more than a bronze statue to salute the more than 265,000 women who served as members of the U.S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam War; it is regarded as a milestone in the journey for all women veterans, as well as those now serving, and others – like volunteers with the Red Cross and the USO – who provided support for U.S. military operations throughout the war.

“The women who served in the Vietnam War played a vital role in helping the country to change and grow,” U.S. Army Capt. Danielle Craig said during a Nov. 10 evening gathering at the memorial. “They showed that women could serve in other capacities, such as combat roles. They also helped to break down barriers and stereotypes about women. The women of the Vietnam War are role models for us all. They showed us that we can make a difference in the world, no matter our gender or background.”

In a talk titled “What the Memorial Means to Me,” Craig explained to Vietnam veterans, who came home a half-century ago to a nation divided not only about the war but also the role of women in society, that their service paved the way for change.

“We have been able to use women’s experiences from Vietnam to better the careers and lives for women of the future,” Craig said. “The women who served in Vietnam set the foundation and went through the trials and tribulations which were used as bricks to build the wall for a stronger future. We stand on the shoulders of those who stood before us.”

Veterans Day commemorations on the National Mall Friday and Saturday were divided into three segments: the annual candlelight gathering at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial on Friday night that included prayer, poetry, testimony and camaraderie; a Saturday morning storytelling session there; and the afternoon’s main event, the annual Veterans Day Observance at the Wall (the Vietnam War Memorial). Carlson Evans, an American Legion member who now lives in Helena, Mont., was the keynote speaker and reflected on the road she and her fellow veterans have traveled since the idea for a women’s memorial occurred to her in 1983.

She told how men and women of the Vietnam War volunteered for 10 years to raise funds, demand approval and see the project through, despite “threats and frequent warning signs that this truly was an impossible dream. The journey began smoothly until the adversaries saw we were serious and began fighting us at every step.

“Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘First they ignore you.’ They did. ‘Then they laugh at you.’ They did. ‘Then they fight you.’ They did. ‘Then you win.’ That’s our 10-year story. We won.”

American Legion National Vice Commander Mark Shreve of Georgia, who placed a wreath at The Wall to conclude the ceremony on Veterans Day, said the women’s memorial and the Legion’s support fit a long-held value of the nation’s largest veterans organization: “A veteran is a veteran,” he said.

No other monument of its kind stood on the National Mall prior to effort. “Our statue was a first, the first monument in the history of the United States placed on the National Mall honoring women’s patriotic service,” Carlson Evans told the crowd. “We made history.”

Among those who spoke at the Friday night gathering – a “candlelight” ceremony that was illuminated with flashlights from mobile phones – Cheryl Molinet spoke of the importance the memorial has for her, a non-combat Vietnam War Navy veteran. “I now feel accepted. I feel credited as a Vietnam-era veteran. I feel complete. I feel I have completed the homage to my family, and I am at peace with completing my calling to service from so long ago.”

She said women who served at that time faced more than one stigma. “Women in the military, at least in my time, were not accepted and most often considered non-essential,” she explained. “We volunteered. We served with pride, honor and valor. We assigned our lives to our country during Vietnam, knowing it may cost our lives. Little, if any, recognition was ever given to the women serving in the military, let alone serving during a war.”

Goodacre, who passed away in 2020, intentionally sculpted no unit insignia or even branch identification into the statue, which features three women and one wounded man.

“We wanted the civilian women who served in support of the armed forces to also feel that they are connected to us, as women veterans, having served wherever we got sent, and that they too are part of this statue,” Carlson Evans said. “(Goodacre) wanted us to circle the statue. She wanted us to be able to walk around it and connect with each figure.”

“This statue honors all women who served during the Vietnam War, without preference to the form of that service,” said Dorothy “Dotty” Beatty, a U.S. Air Force combat nurse in Vietnam, 1969-70. “(Goodacre) was able to imbue her creation with life, with the story each of us holds ever so deeply inside. She told that story in clay, and then it was turned into metal in much the same way the crucible of war forged us into the women we are today.

“Through Glenna’s work, each of the women portrayed lives in us because we live in them. Through this statue, we share our Vietnam experiences with others. The healing continues for all.”