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Vietnam Women's Memorial Dedicated before 25,000

By Cindy Loose
The Washington Post


The unveiling of a bronze statue in a sun-dappled grove of beech and maple trees was the official occasion. But that was a fraction of the point for the 25,000 people who came from across the nation for the dedication of the Vietnam Women's Memorial.

They came to hug and laugh and cry; to remember and be remembered; to expose their pain and perhaps help it go away.

"I couldn't afford to come here, but I just had to,'' said Sue Rowe, of Phoenix, who in 1969 and 1970 served at Pleiku in the 71st Army Evacuation Hospital. "I'm determined to cure myself today, to meet these women again, to come full circle and bring things to a close.''

Florence Johnson, of Massachusetts, dressed in the all-white Gold Star Mothers uniform that marked her as the parent of a soldier killed in battle, came to say thank you.

"They took care of our kids,'' she said. "Maybe somebody here today took care of my boy before he died.''

Tim Davis, of California, a former Marine who lost both his legs in 1968 on Hill 55 about six miles south of Da Nang, complained that the memorial to the women was too far -- 300 feet -- from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The names of the more than 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam are engraved on the black reflecting granite that has come to be known as the Wall.

"I felt the women's monument should be closer to the Wall,'' said Davis, 45, "because these women were the last people those guys saw or talked to before they died.''

The dedication of the statue of three women tending a wounded soldier -- the first national memorial to female veterans -- was the centerpiece of dozens of activities in the area yesterday, including a women's march down Constitution Avenue and a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery. But every event was really about finding old friends.

Two decades and more had sketched lines on many faces, making reunions difficult.

"Sue. Sue Rowe,'' Rowe said to Virginia Willard, of Florida. "We worked together in the OR in `69.''

Willard screeched and wrapped her arms around Rowe. They laughed aloud for only a second, then both began to cry.

"One of the OR scenes we worked on together flashed in my mind,'' Willard said later. "It was one of the guys, hurt pretty bad. He had a lot of abdominal injuries. We just couldn't save him. He was 18 years old.''

Willard was only four years older.

Their moment of recognition had triggered a scene in Rowe's mind too.

"Probably it was the same one Virginia remembered,'' she said, although it wasn't. "He was fresh out of the bush; he must have stepped on a mine. He lost a leg and had a lot of facial wounds. He was a young kid, blond hair, really young.''

The blond soldier died too. But why, of the thousands and thousands of patients she treated in Vietnam, did Rowe think of this one?

"He's in my dreams all the time,'' she answered.

But her worst memory, she said, is of triage, in which patients were sorted according to those needing immediate care, those who could wait and the "expectants'' -- those who had no chance and were put off to the side to die.

"The hardest were the kids we had to put in the expectant room,'' Rowe said. "Those are the ones I always remember, the ones I can never forget.''

An estimated 11,500 American women served in Vietnam, about 90 percent of them as medical personnel. They saw and touched the awful wounds suffered by 300,000 American boys, excluding those who were killed. Of the dead they saw, 29,000 were 17 or 18 years old.

The effect of so much exposure to so much pain was little understood for a long time. Like their male counterparts, these women returned in the late 1960s and early 1970s to a sometimes hostile and, at best, uncaring reception.

They took years to realize that, like the men who fought, they could suffer post traumatic stress disorders and they too would have to come to grips with what they saw and felt.

"There is nothing more intimate than sharing someone's dying with them,'' a Vietnam-era nurse named Dusty wrote in a collection of poems, "Visions of War, Dreams of Peace.''

"It is more intimate than sex, it is more intimate than childbirth, and once you do it, you can never be ordinary again.''