Vietnam Veterans of America
Books in Review, July/August 2020
‘Healing Wounds’: Diane Carlson Evans’ Memoir Chronicling the Long Battle to Honor Women Veterans of the Vietnam War
REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON, BILL McCLOUD, AND HENRY ZEYBEL
It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: To create a great memoir you “only” need two things: a compelling story and the ability to tell it compellingly.
Diane Carlson Evans has three compelling life stories to tell. And she tells them exceptionally well in her new, eye-opening memoir, Healing Wounds: A Vietnam War Combat Nurse’s 10-Year Fight to Win Women a Place of Honor in Washington, D.C. (Permuted Press, 267 pp., $27, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle), which she wrote with the help of the journalist and author Bob Welch.
Evans’ three compelling stories chronicle her life-changing one-year Vietnam tour of duty in the operating and recovery rooms of two Army hospitals during the height of the war; the emotional turbulence that followed her home and did not go away for decades after the war; and the ten-year fight she led against tremendous odds to build a memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to American women who served in the Vietnam War.
Inspired by her mother Dorothy to go into nursing, Diane Carlson—who grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Buffalo, Minnesota—worked in her local hospital as a teenager. She enrolled at St. Barnabas School of Nursing in Minneapolis after graduating from high school in 1964. The following year, while still in nursing school, she signed up for a two-year hitch in the Army Nurse Corps.
After getting her nursing degree, Diane Carlson went on active duty, starting with the Army Medical Service Officer Basic Course at Fort Sam Houston, after which she spent nine months working at Kenner Army Hospital at Fort Lee in Virginia. She arrived in Vietnam on July 31, 1968, one of four nurses on a flight with 250 men. The women were under orders to wear their Class A uniforms, complete with skirt, “heels, nylon stockings, and a purse,” she writes. “I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable on that flight if they’d duct-taped me in a gunny sack.”
Evans gives a perceptive and evocative recounting of her tour of duty working at the Army’s 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau and the 71st Evac in Pleiku. It is an illuminating depiction of what life was like for American medical personnel—including some 10,000 military nurses—who dealt with the carnage of war on a daily basis in Vietnam. Healing Wounds is the most moving account of that aspect of the war that I’ve read since Lynda Van Devanter’s pioneering Home Before Morning burst out of her word processor in 1983.
The second exceptional part of the book is Evans’ brutally frank detailing of her emotional state after coming home from the war in July of 1969—and for decades after that. “When Diane came home,” her sister Nola said, “it was as if she wasn’t my sister anymore.” Evans agreed, saying she “wasn’t a lot of things anymore.” In Vietnam, “even if things went crazy, I’d adjusted to the new normal. Now I was having to adjust to another new normal that, in some ways, was harder than the adjustment in Vietnam.”
People “had no idea what it was like to hold a dying soldier’s hand while it went from warm to cold. Or to be awakened by the sound of chopper blades right over your hootch. Or to have a Montagnard child you’re literally holding in your arms scream herself to death. People didn’t understand—not because vets weren’t willing to talk about it, but because no one showed any genuine interest.”
So, “like so many others,” she writes, “I carried on in silence, the layers of guilt for doing so building up like Wisconsin snowfalls that freeze and thaw and are replaced by more of the same.”
Evans found herself “lost in a personal typhoon” of emotional turbulence. She suppressed her horrific war experiences so deeply that she never spoke about them to her husband and never allowed herself to cry—for decades. All the while she was tormented by what she saw and experienced in Vietnam, replete with flashbacks and nightmares.
What “only made it worse,” Evans says, “was that there was nobody I could talk to about such feelings. In 1969 there were no support groups of Vietnam vets.” That situation didn’t change for Evans until 1982 when she went to Washington to take part in the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In front of the newly built Wall she experienced “the first-ever ‘thank you’ in person,” from a veteran who expressed his gratitude for her service with a hug. She met other women who served as nurses and paid a personal tribute at the Wall to a soldier she treated who later died, and to Sharon Lane, one of eight American nurses who perished in the war.
Soon after coming home from Washington, Evans joined a veterans’ therapy group—the only woman among nine men—then helped lead other groups for two years. In 1983, she became a founding member of VVA Chapter 5 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and for years was a forceful veterans advocate. That advocacy—and her personal experiences in the war and after coming home—led Diane Carlson Evans to the idea of getting a memorial built at the Wall in Washington to honor the women who served in the war.
That idea, supported fully by her husband Mike and four children, led to the ten-year effort that Evans chronicles in the last half of the book. It’s a story that hasn’t been fully told before. Evans and Welch tell it thoroughly and bluntly, not sparing naming people who wrongheadedly stood in the way of the memorial—as well as people and organizations (including Vietnam Veterans of America) that worked to make the memorial a reality.
It gives nothing away to say that this book has a happy ending. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated in 1992. Diane Carlson Evans continued to chair the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation until 2015.
Today, she writes, “I feel peace. The grace I used to pray for when the causalities came in has been showing up more frequently. Prayers have been answered. Faith restored. Joy permitted. Guilt quieted.” — M.L.
When you think of the largest and most impactful antiwar demonstrations during the Vietnam War, three usually come to mind:
You could argue, though, that the series of demonstrations, rallies, and acts of civil disobedience that took place in April and May 1971 in Washington, D.C., may have been more significant than any of the others. Lawrence Roberts makes that case persuasively in Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 448 pp., $28).
This is a well-written, deeply researched look at the often-chaotic days in the Nation’s Capital in March, April, and early May of ’71, “ten weeks that would shake Washington,” as Roberts puts it. During that time a fractious coalition of antiwar groups, including the newly formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War, came to Washington to rally against the Nixon administration’s continuing prosecution of the Vietnam War. The avowed purpose of the actions was to close the city down.
Ultimately, hundreds of thousands took part a variety of mostly peaceful protests, including about a thousand VVAW members. That included the headline-grabbing protest on April 23 when hundreds of VVAW member marched to the U.S. Capitol and, one by one, flung their medals over a newly erected fence onto the West Front grounds.
The threat to close down Washington in May was all the Nixon administration needed to mount a plan to clamp down on the protestors by virtually any means necessary, including illegal and unconstitutional actions by the White House, the Justice Department, and the D.C. police. When the dust settled following the final two days of the attempted shutdown, some 12,000 people had been arrested, the largest mass arrest in U.S. history, as the book’s subtitle notes.
In his first book, Roberts, a long-time Washington, D.C., newspaper editor, does a sterling job of both reporting the many and varied aspects of the demonstrations and analyzing their impact on the prosecution of the war and the fate of the Nixon administration. Writing crisply and readably, Roberts makes good use of extensive interviews he conducted with some of the main players in the weeks-long drama, including Jerry Wilson, who was D.C. Police Chief; former White House aide Egil “Bud” Krough; several antiwar leaders, and a D.C. cop who went undercover and embedded himself in VVAW. Roberts also found previously unreported primary-source evidence, including clandestine audio recordings Nixon made in the White House.
Roberts clearly shows that the organizers of the events often were disorganized, with moderates repeatedly clashing over tactics and strategy (and egos) with radicals. The fact that the largest of the demonstrations went off peacefully—hundreds of thousands of just plain folks marching and demonstrating peacefully—has been all but forgotten because of what happened on May 3 and 4. That’s when the Metropolitan Police Department, under orders from the White House and backed by thousands of active-duty military troops, indiscriminately swept the streets of the capital, arresting more than 12,000 mostly young people.
If you had long hair, wore “hippie” clothes, or just looked like you were under 30, chances are you got busted by no-nonsense cops, jammed into a police wagon, and taken to temporary holding pens, the largest of which was a giant vacant field across from RFK Stadium. Thousands were penned up without food, water, or sanitary facilities for hour upon hour.
Very few of the arrests were legal. After long hours of selfless work by volunteer lawyers, nearly everyone who was swept up and held was released. Eventually, the arrests were expunged from their records. Lawsuits filed by those falsely arrested took years to wend their way through the courts. Ultimately the plaintiffs were successful. Juries “and judges awarded millions of dollars to thousands of detainees,” Roberts writes, “for violations of their right to free speech, assembly, and due process.”
The law-and-order Nixon administration purposely used illegal tactics to squash the demonstration and the civil rights of more than 12,000 law-abiding citizens. Granted, there was the threat of violence, but virtually the only head-banging came from police against peaceful, if sometimes taunting and threatening, demonstrators.
Anyone familiar with President Nixon’s best and brightest advisers can name the architects of the illegal crackdown. Heading the list was Nixon himself, who three years later resigned in disgrace. Then there were his two closest White House advisers, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, who would go to jail for their part in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal, along with lower-ranking White House staffer Egil Krogh.
Attorney General John Mitchell, who went to jail for his role in planning the Watergate break-in and helping to cover it up, also played an important role, throwing the support of the Justice Department behind unjust police actions against the protesters. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger sycophantically egged the president on as he railed against the demonstrators behind closed doors at the White House and plotted what to do about them. Mitchell’s deputy Richard Kleindienst, who later succeeded him, also helped plan and carry out the police actions, as did FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and D.C. Police Chief Jerry Wilson.
The combined police and military actions quashed the demonstration. The government never shut down. The Vietnam War continued, although Nixon continued withdrawing American troops. Nixon was re-elected handily in 1972. But Nixon and his high command’s actions during the Mayday demonstrations, Roberts notes, set the stage for the White House’s reaction to publication of The Pentagon Papers a month later, in June of 1971: setting up a Special Investigation Unit under Bud Krogh and a Kissinger staffer to discover who leaked the document to the media. The unit’s nickname was “the White House Plumbers.”
In the summer of 1972, Roberts writes, “after five men were arrested while breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in a building called the Watergate, the cover-up of the plumbers’ activities would lead to the demise of the Nixon administration.” — M.L.
Chris Bohjalian writes best-selling thrillers—lots of them. His twenty-first and latest, The Red Lotus (Doubleday, 400 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle, $24.50, audiobook), has a strong Vietnam War theme.
One main character—an NYC private investigator and former cop—served in the trenches in the war. One minor character, an upper-crust guy (“Boston Brahmin, Patrician, old money”) served as an Army lifeguard in country. The uncle of one of the main characters died in combat in the war. Agent Orange and its effects on humans and animals—mainly rats—comes up periodically. And a fair amount of the action takes place in Vietnam, albeit in the present day.
Rats are at the center of this fast-moving novel. So is the plague. So is a sociopath who enjoys torturing and murdering people. So is Bohjalian’s fondness for filling the book with in-your-face, clinical descriptions of fatal illnesses and serious medical conditions, along with their medical treatments. The main character, Alexis, a millennial ER doctor, has a self-cutting addiction. Bohjalian fills us in on the razor-blade specifics of that malady, as well as all manner of emergency injuries and illnesses that Alexis treats on the job.
That is, when she isn’t trying to spearhead the investigation into the mysterious death of Austin, her boyfriend. He died violently in Vietnam, purportedly run over by a car during a solo excursion while the young couple was enjoying a biking vacation there.
Alexis discovers that Austin had lied to her and everyone else about why he chose Vietnam for this biking adventure. He claimed he wanted to see the place where his dad—the lifeguard—had been wounded and his uncle had been killed. Turns out his rear-echelon father had been injured in a golf cart accident at Long Binh Post and his uncle died in another part of Vietnam.
Those revelations set in motion a plot that moves back and forth between Vietnam and New York City. The tale includes a smart Vietnamese detective, the dedicated American Nam vet PI, an edgy NYC hospital administrator, and an array of bad guys and gals—and rats.
The sociopath is a rat aficionado. He’s also a maniac who cooks up a dastardly scheme involving a unique biological weapon: rats injected with a new form of the plague that does not respond to antibiotics. Austin, a clean-cut guy who raises money for the hospital where Alexis works, gets involved in the scheme and pays for it with his life. The plot picks up steam as the hunt for Austin’s killer (and the real reason he went to Vietnam) meshes with the main bad guy’s plan to unleash ultra-killer rats on the world. Things zoom to a blood-drenched climax in New York City.
Along the way, Bohjalian gets in a bit of Vietnam War support troop bashing at the expense of Austin’s Army lifeguard dad. Rear-echeloners were “guys playing basketball and sitting around getting tan at the swimming pools,” the Vietnamese cop explains to Alexis. “Plus the tennis courts. The softballs fields. The libraries. The weight rooms. The nightclubs.”
If you’re up for delving into the fictional ramifications of evildoers unleashing the plague on the world as we go through a real pandemic, this could very well be the book for you. — M.L.
Xiaobing Li, a professor of history and the director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, served in China’s People’s Liberation Army from 1970-72. His new book, The Dragon in the Jungle: The Chinese Army in the Vietnam War (344 pp. Oxford University Press, $34.95), is rooted in his military experience—along with 16 years of research on the subject.
Li’s goal is to provide an international perspective to help readers gain a better understanding of the Vietnam War and China’s role in it. He offers answers to questions about China’s objectives, the planning and carrying out of its fighting methods, and why the nation withdrew its forces from Vietnam before the war ended—along with the impact China’s intervention ultimately had on the modernization of its army.
This book provides a better understanding of the ground-level actions of the Chinese army in the Vietnam War. It also provides a view of the war through the eyes of Chinese officers and soldiers, obtained by interviews with the author.
China had once dominated both Vietnam and Korea, and entered the second-half of the twentieth century with the view that both countries were still within its defense orbit. China and Vietnam fought with the Allies against Japan in World War II. The Chinese supported the North Vietnamese in their 1946-54 war against France, and then continued supporting the communist North during the 1955-63 civil war.
When China and the Soviet Union split with each other during the 1956-64 period, known as the Sino-Soviet Rift, each nation saw the other as a rival for the support of the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam always tried to remain neutral in this rivalry.
Early in the American War, Chinese troops entered North Vietnam in response to the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. Eventually, more than 300,000 Chinese service personnel would serve, mostly in air defense, railroad and highway construction, and combat engineering. China wanted to avoid a major war against the United States, but did not want Vietnam to be under Western control. China also supported North Vietnam to reduce its need for aid from the Soviet Union.
As the war went on, the Soviet Union began significantly increasing its military aid to the North. China saw itself as battling two superpowers, the U.S. militarily and the Soviet Union politically. Eventually, China withdrew all its troops from Vietnam. The nation was dealing with economic limitations, a serious technological gap, and continuing rivalry with Moscow, as well as serious concerns about getting into a war with the U.S.
The Dragon in the Jungle is an especially important book because, while it focuses on China’s military, it also analyzes the military actions of the U.S., Soviet Union, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. That’s a lot of ground covered.
Xiaobing Li frequently uses newly available sources to take this deep dive into the Chinese military’s strategy and planning, tactical decisions, and problem-solving efforts. This is a major work that unearths new and important information about China’s role in the American War in Vietnam. — B.Mc.
Stephen Wynn examines the gamut of flying difficulties while solving the Mystery of Missing Flight F-BELV (Pen and Sword, 192 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle). Said mystery: the disappearance of a Boeing Model 307 Stratoliner on a routine flight from Vientiane to Hanoi on October 18, 1965.
The airplane, which belonged to the International Commission for Supervision and Control (ICSC), carried nine delegates from India, Canada, and Poland who monitored hostilities in Indochina. One of the nine, a sergeant in the Canadian army, was Wynn’s uncle, a fact that significantly stimulated his search for a solution to what happened to the airplane, its passengers, and crew.
Wynn uncovered data on the aircraft’s maintenance, its French crew’s proficiency, the terrain it overflew, the day’s weather, the probability of mistaken identity, Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese antiaircraft weapons, and even the insight of a clairvoyant. He also includes an in-depth review of regional politics at the time of the plane’s disappearance.
Although an on-and-off search for F-BELV continued until 2002, no wreckage has been discovered. Nevertheless, Wynn reaches a definitive conclusion as to the plane’s fate, which we will not reveal here.
Following a thirty-year career as an English police constable, Wynn began writing books in 2010. He has produced more than a book a year since then, six of which he has co-written. Events in England—such as the stories in Pen and Swords’ “Towns and Cities of the Great War” series—had been his principal topic until now.
Mystery of Missing Flight F-BELV repeatedly veers off into discussions about America’s role in the Vietnam War. The tone of Wynn’s comments contains a fatalistic puzzlement over how a great nation committed itself to such a blunder-filled endeavor. He emphasizes the negative effects that the Central Intelligence Agency and Air America had on the progress and outcome of the war. His conclusion: “The biggest influence in South Vietnamese politics wasn’t communism, but the continuous interference by elements of the CIA.”
Along with those bashings and the F-BELV mystery, Wynn provides inside facts on his uncle and the ineptitude of the ICSC, which was established in 1954 to enforce the Geneva Accords following the end of the French Indochina War. It was made up of members from then pro-communist Poland, anti-communist Canada, and neutral India.
For old timers, this slim book brings back an evening’s worth of head-shaking memories—with pictures. — H.Z.
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