WASHINGTON — From 8 a.m. until just before dark on Monday, the female veterans told their stories.
“I’d go into the medical closet and cry, cry, cry,” one said. “The men got Purple Hearts. We got broken hearts,” another one said.
“The sound. That sound of the helicopter. You heard that sound and you knew more were coming,” another woman said.
For more than two decades, the United States didn’t want to hear the stories of women and nurses who served in Vietnam. They were scorned and disrespected.
When they began pushing for a memorial to the women who served, detractors worried that would open the floodgates to even more memorials — such as for scout dogs.
But supporters said the fantastic, perfect Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin — the Wall — was nevertheless incomplete. Former Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, said, during one of the 1988 congressional hearings that there was a “void.”
Larry Sudweeks knows about that.
“Larry had this hole. Like a big old void,” said Larry’s wife, Loretta Sudweeks, as she pointed to Larry’s chest.
The void in Sudweeks’ life goes back to his time in Vietnam, where he spent 45 days in the 93rd Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh.
He knew it was the nurses who kept him alive. But once they made him strong enough, he was flown back home, back to family and away from that place of blood and gauze and death. Another broken, dying soldier took his bed before Sudweeks got a chance to thank them or even get their names.
His was a common experience.
“I can’t remember your name, but I just wanted to say thanks for saving my life,” read one of the notes left on the National Mall on Monday. It was signed, “One of Many.”
The rest of the nation had the same problem: never getting the women’s names, never having the time to thank them.
It was 1993 before the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated to honor the ones who volunteered to serve, who stayed while others were flown out, who did the comforting but were never comforted.
There was no draft for women. About 11,000 — most of them nurses — raised their hands and went.
A few hundred of them were at the women’s memorial in Washington on Veterans Day to remember, to talk, to embrace, to share and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their memorial — and two decades of the nation finally acknowledging their service.
Like the men, the women who served in Vietnam often were scorned when they returned to the United States. It was especially bad for women, who were judged as harlots for having served among the men. The television show “M*A*S*H” didn’t help either. They’d say “Army nurse,” and all people heard was “Hot Lips Houlihan.”
Many of them folded their uniforms, put away their caps and stayed silent about their service.
There is a whole new wave of female veterans now, including women who saw combat and were injured or lost friends on the battlefield.
“We talk to the women who are out there now,” said 1st. Lt. Brenda Jansons, who came from South Carolina for Veterans Day. She still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from her time in Vietnam. “And you know what? Their story is our story. Nothing’s changed.”
That’s true in the saddest of ways.
“There’s a secondary war,” said Jennie Rose, 66, a retired Army lieutenant colonel.
“The sexual assault of women is the secondary war on them. And it’s there, and it’s very, very real,” she said, pointing to herself and another female veteran. “We both lived through it.”
It was Gen. Colin Powell who first publicly thanked the nurses who saved him.
“The nurses were the ones who never got respite,” he said, and he asked everyone, on this Veterans Day, to give thanks “especially to the women who served silently.”