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For Those Who Lived: The Vietnam Women's Memorial   by JIM BELSHAW

 

The last thing I said to anyone I served with when I left Vietnam was that this place will never be anywhere but just over my shoulder for the rest of my life. That's been the case with a lot of people I've talked to since. We don't always want to look over our shoulder and see it, but it's right there. --Marsha Four, U.S. Army, Vietnam, 1969-70

Some 265,000 women served in the military in the Vietnam era; about 11,000 served in Vietnam. Eight women died there. Close to 90 percent of the women who served in-country were nurses. Others were physicians, physical therapists, personnel in the Medical Service Corps, air traffic controllers, communications specialists, intelligence officers, and clerks. Nearly all who served in-country volunteered.

On November 11, 1993, after 10 years of effort, the Vietnam Women's Memorial was dedicated as part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Created by renowned sculptor Glenna Goodacre, the memorial, depicting three nurses caring for a wounded soldier, stands 6 feet 8 inches high and weighs one ton.

The tenth anniversary of the memorial will be celebrated November 10-11 in Washington with many events, including an appearance at the memorial by Goodacre.

"I'm often asked what is my favorite piece and I always say the Vietnam Women's Memorial because of how much it means to so many people,'' Goodacre said.

Long before the memorial began to be shaped in Goodacre's Santa Fe, N.M., studio, it caused Marsha Four to look back at her Vietnam War experience. In 1987, she ran into a frienD who was a local newspaper reporter. The reporter told Four she was going to a meeting of a Vietnam Veterans of America chapter to hear a woman speak about the effort under way to build a memorial dedicated to the women who served in Vietnam. Four tagged along.

"I listened to the presentation and I found myself almost to the point where I couldn't talk,'' she said. "Some of it was upsetting, some of it was a sense of pride listening to someone say that what I did was important. It was an important meeting for me.''

The members of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, Chapter 67 encouraged her to join. She did and has been a member ever since, going on to serve on the VVA Board of Directors three times and as current chair of the Women Veterans Committee.

Four believes that evening was the first time she considered the significance of her year in Vietnam.

"I began to realize that what I did was important to people and their lives, people I will never know,'' she said. "The memorial is a place I go where I can just sit. Sometimes it takes you back and sometimes it's painful. We all want to believe that we keep those experiences in the right box in the closet. Sometimes sitting there at the memorial, when you close your eyes, you can't help but see those things that were difficult.''

She said that for many women, coming home meant little or no conversation about where they had been. Like so many of their male counterparts, they tucked Vietnam away in a private space.

"We came home, went to school, got married, had kids,'' she said. "There wasn't a lot of talk about our being in the military. We didn't have a GI haircut when we came home. Nobody looked at us and said, 'Ah, military.' Unless we decided to say it, no one knew it.''

Ten years ago, Vietnam veteran David Chung, then an employee of Federal Express, drove a specially outfitted FedEx truck from Santa Fe to Washington, D.C. He carried a cargo that touched the hearts of those who came to see it along the way. Ten years later, it has touched the hearts of hundreds of thousands more.

Chung vividly remembers a woman in Dallas. She was upset. She stared at the statue of three women and a wounded soldier for a long time, saying nothing. Chung and others went to see if she was all right. They asked if she had lost a loved one in Vietnam. Chung will never forget the woman's reply.

"She said she lost herself,'' he said. "She lost herself in Vietnam.''

She had been a Navy X-ray technician. When she came home, she flew on a plane loaded with critically wounded men. In the years after the war, she tried to put the war behind her, choosing to tell no one of her service. She went to college, married, raised a family, became a grandmother.

No one knew she served in Vietnam.

"When we were leaving, she said she was going home to do something she didn't think she would ever do,'' Chung said. "She was going to tell her husband and her family that she was a Vietnam veteran.''

Sculptor Glenna Goodacre, who knew no one involved in the Vietnam War before taking on the memorial project, said she had no idea how widespread the impact of the work would be, including the impact on her own career.

"To be on the Washington Mall and to represent those young women who worked so hard to take care of soldiers is something that can't be duplicated in any other way,'' Goodacre said. "I've heard from all kinds of people over the past 10 years--veterans and parents, husbands and mothers, all those whose loved ones were saved by those women. They want to give me a hug and that always leads to tears. It has so much meaning. I truly had no idea of what it would mean to other people and me.''

She draws a distinction between the Women's Memorial and nearby Wall.

"I like to say The Wall is for those who died. This Women's Memorial is for those who lived. Something like 350,000 were wounded and lived. I covered his face [the memorial's wounded soldier] so he would be anonymous. She's holding a pressure bandage on him. He's terribly wounded, but he's going to live. It's uplifting in my mind.''

Sandra Spatz-Wiszneauckas, a former Marine, was scheduled for discharge in the late 1960s. She had not been to Vietnam. She was not a nurse, but had been working with wounded Marines at Bethesda Naval Hospital. As the time neared for her to leave the Marine Corps, an inquiry was made.

"I was asked to extend for another year to serve in Vietnam,'' she said. "That's how I ended up over there. I was inspired by the Marines who were coming back to Bethesda. I felt compelled to serve in Vietnam after seeing them.''

In Vietnam, she worked in the Naval Forces office under the command of Adm. Elmo Zumwalt.

A founding member of VVA Chapter 641, Spatz-Wiszneauckas also is the vice president of Vietnam Women Veterans, a group of non-nurse women veterans formed five years ago. Having located 350 women who served in various capacities in Vietnam, the group is holding a reunion November 10-11 in Washington.

"What came from these women speaking to one another about Vietnam was a valuing of themselves and their service,'' she said. "I think people came away feeling an appreciation for the service they provided. They validated each other.''

Spatz-Wiszneauckas said she frequently visits The Wall and the Women's Memorial, her chapter having worked for several years with the Park Service.

"Of the three women depicted in the memorial, it's the woman in the back, kneeling, her head down, almost prayerfully, that strikes me the most,'' she said. "The memorial does a good job of symbolizing the service of women. It captures that feeling of service and a reliance on something beyond them.''

David Chung, now working in minority affairs with the VA, said of his experience transporting the statue 10 years ago: "The statue took on a life of its own and in turn gave me back my life. It's the only way I can describe it.''

Chung, who brought the statue to the attention of Fred Smith, FedEx's founder and CEO, a Vietnam veteran, was apprehensive about making the trip with the statue. He had not been involved with veterans groups at all until 1986, when he participated in the Welcome Home parade in Chicago. At the urging of his wife, who served in Vietnam as a nurse, he became involved in the memorial project.

"The journey changed me'' he said. "The nurses said how great it was for something like this to happen because they finally were being recognized. Families of veterans who were wounded or didn't make it home came out to see the statue everywhere we stopped because they wanted somehow to find a way to thank the nurses who tried to save their sons or comforted their sons before they died.''

In Junction City, Kansas, Chung arrived late at night in a driving rainstorm that had slowed him for hours. More than three thousand people waited for the statue's arrival. State troopers who had escorted the truck shined their spotlights on the statue. A buddy working with Chung told him to look into the crowd.

"It was amazing," Chung said. "If you looked into the individual faces, even in the rain and the dim light, you could see tears running down faces of the people. The statue still carries that kind of power. Look at the people who come today. They stare, they leave notes. Veterans almost always touch it. You can see why in their faces: 'You took care of me, you took care of my son.' It's very powerful. They want to touch it. They want to connect. They want to come full circle."

Marsha Four underscores the point.

"It's a great vehicle for women to open up to one another,'' she said. "It identified who we were. It brought women together in groups and that fostered interaction. For some, it was the first time they vocalized to others what happened to them. It was a great catharsis for many women. We could be painfully blunt with each other and know that we weren't going to judged.''

About the Author

Jim Belshaw is a writer for The VVA Veteran, the official voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ® An organization chartered by the U.S.
Congress. Learn more at http://www.vva.org

 

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