In a special edition of Montana Treasure, we take a look at the remarkable impact one Helena woman has had on military servicewomen across the nation. Our Bliss Zechman sat down with Diane Carlson Evans, founder of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, to see just how she did it. Diane Carlson Evans lives in the shadows of Montana’ State Capitol. She and her husband Mike frequently go for walks around its campus, but she’s known all over the nation for the work she did to honor women like her—women who served their country even when it wasn’t popular.
"They were just as brave and they were just as honorable as any soldier that had ever served," said Evans.
She was a nurse in Vietnam from 1968-1969 at the height of the war. In those two, bloody years, 30,000 Americans died in battle. Their names are forever etched on the nearly 250-foot long wall in D.C. but, without women like Evans, thousands more would be commemorated there.
"If it wasn't for us, that wall would be much wider and much higher."
The war was so unpopular, she faced another battle when she got home. She was called the machine that oiled the baby killers, rejected from society and received very little support from her representatives in D.C.
"We felt betrayed.”
So, for more than a decade, she tried to erase the memories of her service, cutting off any ties to the Vietnam War. But like so many, something changed when she saw the Vietnam memorial wall for the first time.
"I saw the names, and then I couldn't forget anymore. If I couldn't find my voice to talk about that, then why go on living?"
However, for Evans, something was still missing from the picture, none of the monuments depicted servicewomen like her.
"The men got organized, and I thought, if they can do it, we can too. And so, I started a movement."
But what took the men two years to put together, took Evans and her supporters more than a decade.
“It was one hearing after another, I testified at over 35 hearings. People have asked, how could you do it, and I said, the same way I got through it in Vietnam, you get up in the morning and you do it.”
Her vision came to fruition on November 11, 1993—Veterans Day. Now a statue depicting three women, including a nurse tending to a wounded soldier, was erected on the Mall in Washington—a lasting tribute to the women who risked their lives and their reputations by serving their country in Vietnam.
"It probably was the best day of my life, they were crying and people were saying thank you and that's the only two words they ever needed to hear was thank you.”
Since that day, Evans has been honored many times over. Recently she received the American Legion's national Patriot Award, a prestigious honor presented just once a year.
Even though women are gaining more notoriety than ever as they transition to combat roles, Evans hopes Americans never forget the women who've been serving since the beginning.
"The message for today, for Memorial Day, is that women have always served our nation. Always in whatever way they could possibly do it, doesn't mean it was easy, but it was worth it."
Diane Evans, an American hero, a Montana treasure.