The Forgotten Veterans

Tenth Anniversary Of Women's Veterans Memorial

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Vietnam Women's Memorial.

The 10,000 women who served in Vietnam, mostly as nurses, were known as the "The Forgotten Veterans" for many years after the war.

When Correspondent Morley Safer first met some of them in 1989, they were struggling to get that memorial. And there was great resistance.

One Washington official said, in effect, “If you give the women their statue, you’ll have to let the K-9 corps, the dogs, have theirs.”

Women veterans felt neglected and insulted. But, as some of them told Safer in this 60 Minutes Classic, that was nothing compared to the cold, even hostile America they found when they came home.

"I remember coming home from Vietnam in August of '69, and my dad took me,” says Diane Evans, who was 21 when she was stationed at the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku.

“He said, 'Let's get in the truck and go to town. I'm going to take you to the feed store.' So we went to the feed store. And the lady is adding up, you know, the feed that he's bought. And my dad says to her, who's a lifelong friend, 'Diane just got home from Vietnam.' And she wouldn't look at me.”

“She would not look at me, and she wouldn't say anything. And my dad is feeling very embarrassed, and I want to crawl in a hole and disappear. And we get in the truck and we drive home, and I said, 'Dad, don't ever tell anybody I was in Vietnam. Just don't talk about it.'”

Jackie Rhoads of the 18th Surgical Hospital at Quang Tri also went from the heat of Vietnam to an ice-cold America.

“When we landed, we were given a briefing and told not to go out in our uniforms, not to be seen in the streets,” says Jackie. “And I remember how confused I was at that time, because I thought, 'Well, God, we've done good. We've saved a lot of lives. I know we've saved a lot of lives. We're somebody important.'”

One reason why they were able to save so many lives was that the MedEvac helicopters brought men in minutes after they were hit. In other wars, thousands died on the battlefields of their wounds.

The motto of the MedEvacs was, 'Get him on the chopper alive and we'll save him.' But on days where there were mass casualties, the motto proved untrue. These nurses, many of them on their first duty after nursing school, had to practice triage.

“We had wall-to-wall bodies,” remembers Jackie. “We just looked at the wounds to decide who was salvageable.” It was tough, she says, because they wanted to save everybody.

What they saw every day was a harrowing stream of mutilated and dying men being cared for by young women stuck in the mythology of their profession: Remain above it all, cool, detached, angels of mercy, always giving aid and comfort, never needing it.

“When I first started seeing things, I reacted, and I was sick,” says Diane. “I was ill. I would go back to my hooch and I would cry. After about a month, I think, our defenses built up. If we were going to save lives and if we're going to be any good to ourselves and our patients, we couldn't react emotionally. So we kept our feelings inside. I didn't cry after that."

When Patty Langford arrived in Vietnam, she was a 21-year-old bride. In California, she had met and married a young infantry lieutenant named Russell Reinel. When she was shipped out, he volunteered and followed her to Vietnam. They were stationed together in Lai Khe.

“The 5th of November, '69. I had a break. I don't know if it was a day off or it was slow or what, and we had a little PX in the perimeter. And the chaplain came and got me at the PX and said, ‘We have something to tell you,'” remembers Patty.

“When the chaplain comes to talk to you, it's usually not good news. And that was my big fear the whole time - something's going to happen to him. They told me he'd stepped on a land mine. What they told me was that his head was blown off. I mean, I don't know, they wouldn't let me see the body. And I mean, I always wished I had, but I'm probably glad that I didn't.”

Patty came home a 21-year-old widow.

Because nurses were not officially in combat, few people believed they could suffer the after-effects of war. No nightmares, no flashbacks.

Jackie agreed: “I remember thinking, 'Flashbacks,' and God forgive me for feeling this way, but I remember thinking, 'Oh, I don't think they really exist.'”

But in 1984, she was in a helicopter on a training exercise in Texas. It was the first time since Vietnam. “It was a slide show that you couldn't control - pictures and memories that came rushing back. I saw blood on the windshield. And I remember one particular case where there was blood on the inside of the windshield.”

And like many men, the women Vietnam veterans are finding it helps to exorcise the phantoms of Vietnam if they stick together.

In Patty's case, she takes part in a support group of 25 veterans in Lynwood, N.J.

“They have an amazing respect for the nurses that took care of them. Almost all of them were wounded. There's one guy in the group who was shot three times. And he was hit - three tours of duty,” says Patty.

“Well, he was probably shot more than that, but every time when he got shot, when he got injured and he was getting dusted off to the hospital, he said, 'Great, I'm going to fall in love with another nurse.' And that was what kept him going.”

In October 1988, Patty Langford got married again to Pat McGarvey, also a Vietnam veteran.

“It's taken a long time, it really has, a long, long time, but things are starting to turn around, and I'm very, very fortunate right now,” says Patty. “I feel good. I married a wonderful guy, and it's like, at 40 years old, I'm finally starting to live again.”

“I think about Vietnam every day,” says Diane. “Once I would see one face, another face would come back. And it was like I needed to grieve for the first time since Vietnam, because in Vietnam we didn't have a wake, we didn't have a funeral. We didn't grieve. And I think the grieving process for me started when I went out to the wall, because I could cry.”

The wall carries the names of eight women who did not come home. Four years after that original broadcast, the women finally got their memorial.

For Diane Evans, who fought long and hard to make it happen, the dedication ceremony in 1993 meant that the women who served in Vietnam would no longer be forgotten veterans.

“I looked out on the sea of people who were there, and I felt this enormous sense of pride, pride that the people in this country, the Americans, did get behind us, and that's why that memorial was there,” says Diane.

Three decades after returning home from Vietnam, she is now retired from the military and from nursing. Now she travels the country speaking about the women who went to war.

“More than 10,000 of us went to Vietnam. Of that 10,000, approximately 90 percent of us were nurses,” says Diane.

Has America’s attitude changed?

“I think we have come a long way, and the country has turned around, but it's still a very emotional subject, and some people still don't want to talk about it,” says Diane.

The people who will talk about it, however, are the men these veterans cared for.

“I was contacted after 60 Minutes by a vet,” says Diane. “And he said his name was Bob McDonough. And he said 'I'll prove to you that you were my nurse.'”

“He said, 'I have your picture. I've been carrying it for 20 years.' He said 'I wanted a beer, and you brought that beer and hid it out in between the sandbags outside the hospital.' And as soon as he said that, I was like, 'Oh, my goodness, it was me.' Because I remember we'd do things like that. You know, we'd do anything to make them happy or comfortable. He never forgot that.”

But meeting Bob McDonough again in person was not to be. Last February, Evans received a phone call from his daughter saying he'd died from the effects of Agent Orange exposure. He was only 48. Now, his daughter wants to meet the nurse who took care of him.

“He had told me that he was better off than a lot of the guys he had met in Vietnam, because he was streetwise. He was a tough, tough kid, who had been raised on I don't know what side of the tracks in New York,” remembers Diane. “I wish I could have seen him again before he passed away.”

Jackie Rhoads spent part of the last decade in another war, this time the 807th MASH unit in Desert Storm. But she quickly realized this was a very different war.

“It was a 100-hour war. We saw 12 American GIs and those GIs who were there, most of them had been souvenir hunting. And because of the shifting sands in Saudi Arabia, a lot of ammunition was covered over. And so they were stepping on unexploded ammunition, and a lot of them received injuries that way,” says Jackie.

Different wars, different receptions. Coming home from Desert Storm, she says “the feeling I had was one of maybe embarrassment or maybe a little guilt. People were cheering us and many of us were not exposed to real actual combat.”

Through all the celebrations, however, she kept thinking about one soldier in Vietnam who brought his best friend to the field hospital.

“They had been on a patrol. His friend had stepped on a land mine. And, of course, he was blown to bits. His best friend knelt down and picked up pieces of his body, put it in a black plastic bag, and then walked 12 miles to our emergency room to make sure that his friend came back home,” remembers Jackie, who recently retired from the military after 30 years of service.

“I thought of that. I thought of that man, because he never stayed. As soon as he made sure his friend was registered in graves registration, he turned around, and he walked back down this road leading to God knows where. And I still think about him, and wonder what happened to him.

When we last met Patty Langford, she was starting a new life with fellow veteran Pat McGarvey. But in 1994, while working as a nurse in a local veterans clinic, she says Vietnam came back to haunt her.

“I was not in a war situation. I was in a situation where the veterans, the same guys now, of course, a lot older, were coming in to me and I was making life-and-death decisions about their health care,” says Patty.

It overwhelmed her. Unable to continue nursing, she spent four months in a veterans trauma center, trying to deal with flashbacks of Vietnam and still trying to deal with the death of her first husband.

“You know, why did he die, and I was left to live,” she asks. “And I've become more spiritual over the years. And been asking for help from higher up to answer some of these questions.”

Jackie, Diane, and Patty all still carry emotional baggage from Vietnam, and still maintain a bond with that time and that place.

“It's always with me. There are some days I just wish it would go away, but I've come to terms with the fact that it's not going to go away,” says Diane. “It's part of my life, it's who I am.”

  • Rebecca Leung

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