Every Veterans Day, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. becomes a site for storytelling and remembrance.
Since 1993, Veterans, family members and supporters have assembled near this revered statue, which is the first monument on the National Mall honoring women and their military service.
This year, on Nov. 11, celebrants will gather to commemorate the memorial’s 30th anniversary.
The groundwork for the memorial
Diane Carlson Evans, a Veteran and combat nurse during the Vietnam War, worked for nine years to make this memorial a reality. The idea took root in the 1980s, when she cultivated an interest in how to remember women who served.
Evans incorporated the Vietnam Women’s Foundation in 1984, raising funds for the design, site construction and long-term care. She navigated years of design competitions, approvals and denials until Nov. 11, 1993 (Veterans Day) marked the memorial’s completion.
Weighing one ton, the bronze memorial was sculpted by Glenna Goodacre. It stands 15 feet high and features three uniformed women without insignia in various poses; one caring for a fallen soldier. Approximately 265,000 military and civilian women served during the Vietnam War.
Surrounding the landscape plaza where the memorial rests, a vista of eight yellowwood trees stands as tribute to the eight servicewomen (all nurses) who lost their lives in Vietnam. Their names are included on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
The power of storytelling
Marsha Guenzler-Stevens, an educator and longtime friend of Evans, served for years as vice president of the Vietnam Women’s Foundation and currently sits on the advisory board for Eastern National, the organization maintaining the memorial.
Guenzler-Stevens sought to give Veterans a platform for carrying their stories forward.
“I started Storytelling on Memorial Day and Veterans Day in 1996, so we wouldn’t lose this history,” she said. “We invite people to share their stories. Our culture says ‘no one wants to hear stories about an unpopular war.’ It is an act of courage, and we found that stories have the power to heal. The program grew and brought attention to the fact that women served. It has been my gift to be present all these years. This is a sacred space. The memorial has the power to bring folks together and engage people in community. You feel like you matter, and you are one of many.”
Guenzler-Stevens sees this event as an opportunity. “It’s a chance to share a history that is underpinning the present day. It’s about pain, but also hope and bravery,” she said. “There is a great deal of hurt in our world today. Even when individuals return from current conflicts and join us for Storytelling, we can see the possibility of healing. We see ourselves (in these stories) and what we’re meant to learn about vulnerability and resiliency.”
Plans for the 30th anniversary
The storytelling tradition will continue at the memorial’s anniversary event.
“It’s partly a family reunion; to bring people back to community with each other,” said Guenzler-Stevens. “The only way people make it through war is to lean on each other … to survive and recover. Here are people who may understand you completely in a way others don’t. We want to ensure these stories don’t get forgotten. They’re profoundly important, and a way to say thank you. This is a legacy. It lives on in children and grandchildren and in policies, procedure and artifacts that are the foundation for young soldiers today.”
The 30th anniversary celebration will offer a full day of commemorative activities, including music, poetry and a candlelight ceremony that evening. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial website features a repository of videos of Storytelling over the years, dating back to 2003.
For more information about the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, visit Vietnamwomensmemorial.org.
April Love is a Writer-Editor on the VISN 19 Creative Task Force. She began working for VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System in 2016 and lives in Aurora, Colorado.