Memorial may let female veterans accept and end grief

SUSAN REIMER

November 11, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

Today on the Mall in Washington, near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a statue honoring women who served during the Vietnam War will be unveiled.

The bronze sculpture depicts three of those women, most of whom were medical workers. One cradles a wounded soldier in her arms. A second looks to the sky, perhaps for a rescue helicopter. A third is on her knees, holding a helmet.

Retired Col. Jane Carson was one of the nurses in Vietnam, serving from April 1969 to May 1970. She will be a keynote speaker at the ceremonies today, which culminate a 10-year effort to pay tribute to the 250,000 women who served during the Vietnam War -- 11,000 of whom volunteered to go to Vietnam. Eight died in there, and their names are on the Wall, near the statue.

Like the thousands of women Vietnam veterans who will come to the Mall today, Jane Carson will look into the faces of those bronze "sister veterans," and she will see the grief and the despair there. She may weep for the horror that she saw, for the helplessness she felt in the face of it.

This dedication begins a healing process too-long postponed. The women have lived with the same Vietnam legacies that have haunted the men, she says. Memories of the carnage. The vilification by the protesters at home. The admission by their superiors that they had lost the war. "Plus we faced the enemy of death," she says. "Death was always waiting to defeat us."

The baby in a strong and patriotic Greenville, S.C., family, Ms. Carson joined the Army as a nurse in large part because her three older, military brothers told her she shouldn't. After a stint in Korea, she volunteered for Vietnam because she liked seeing the world. She arrived in Saigon in a dress uniform and high heels. She watched what she thought were flares from the patio of the officers' club her first night in Chu Lai. "I thought it was so pretty," she says.

The next morning, she saw just what those fireworks could do: The bodies of soldiers mutilated by grenades, rockets and high-velocity weapons.

Much of Ms. Carson's Vietnam memory ends on that officers' club patio. It has been 23 years, but she has never opened the footlocker she brought home from Vietnam, and the same can be said for her heart. "I did what everyone did. I packed it away," she says.

During the remainder of her 27 years in the Army, only a handful ever knew she was in Vietnam. She did not touch a patient again, opting for administrative duties, until 1987 in Korea. Injuries from riots and U.S. Army maneuvers forced her into the wards. There, the smells and the sights of the wounded and the sounds of helicopters overhead broke her stoicism. Dreams and flashbacks splintered her consciousness. "The pain brought me to my knees," she says now.

The Army brass said it was not possible for Vietnam nurses to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder because they were not in combat. But when Ms. Carson finally entered a veterans center for psychological treatment, she found other nurses there.

"I learned that I did a lot of good for people. My head knows it now. I am trying to get my heart to believe it," she says.

She retired in May 1989 and when she no longer had her work to shield her from her memories, she found the courage to go to the Wall for the first time the following Veterans Day. There she found the name of one of her nurses, Lt. Sharon Lane, who died when a rocket hit Ms. Carson's ward. She had never let herself remember Lt. Lane or her death.

"The Wall is a chance to say you are sorry," she says. "Sorry you couldn't save them. Sorry you weren't with them when they died. Sorry that you didn't give them that last hug or say that last prayer because you were so scared, you couldn't move. Now the statue will let us heal."

Ms. Carson rode with the statue for part of its whistle-stop journey from New Mexico to Washington. "I saw the pain of some of these women veterans who have never admitted to even their closest friends that they were in Vietnam. And then I felt the release when someone said, 'Welcome home. And thank you.' "

The statue is a tribute for the 350,000 men who came through their units and did not die. It is an invitation to the women of the Vietnam War to come home, to begin the healing process.

"You don't have to keep trying to forget," Ms. Carson will say to those women today. "You have to forgive yourself. Forgiveness is remembering, and then letting go."

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