WASHINGTON -- Savoring their long-delayed moment of recognition, thousands of women veterans from across the nation triumphantly gathered on the Mall yesterday to dedicate a memorial honoring their service in Vietnam.
An estimated 25,000 people turned out for the ceremony, many still wearing their faded wartime uniforms in the bright autumn sunshine. Some of the women veterans held bittersweet makeshift reunions at the nearby Vietnam Memorial, whose wall bears the names of the 58,191 Americans who died during the war. Eight of them were women.
The monument of three military women with a wounded male soldier has been criticized as a distraction from the power and simplicity of the wall. But women veterans who fought to erect the monument -- the first in the capital to honor women who have served their nation in war -- insisted it is a well-earned thanks that should have come long ago.
In the years after the war's end, said Vice President Al Gore, himself a veteran of Vietnam, "we never listened to their story. And we never properly thanked them. Dedicating this memorial gives us occasion to do both.
"Let us all resolve that this memorial serve as a vehicle for healing our nation's wounds," he said. "Let us never again take so long in honoring a debt."
More than 11,000 women volunteered to serve with the armed services in Vietnam, most as nurses. Tens of thousands more served as civilian workers and volunteers.
"For the first time now, women are being recognized for participating as much as the men did," said Virginia D. Cardona, who served as an Army nurse in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 and now works as associate director of professional development at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
The larger-than-life sculpture depicts three women in fatigues: As one cradles a wounded soldier in her arms, another bows her head and the third looks to the sky for help.
"Perhaps she is looking for a helicopter; perhaps she is looking for help from God," said Glenna Goodacre, the Santa Fe, N.M., artist who created the heroic-size bronze.
By design, she said, the women wear uniforms with no identifying insignia, leaving their identity and the role they played during the Vietnam war to the interpretation -- or memories -- of the observer.
The monument stands in a quiet grove of trees, 300 feet from the Vietnam Memorial. The black granite wall is visible from the new sculpture, as is the grouping of three male soldiers, whose dedication almost a decade ago spurred the call for a tribute to the women who served.
Diane Carlson Evans, who fought sometimes stubborn government bureaucracies to bring the memorial to the Mall as the founder of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project, rejected the attacks on the monument.
"We don't care what the art critics say," she declared at yesterday's ceremony. "We didn't build this memorial for art critics, and they do not need to come here and critique it."
The keynote speaker at yesterday's ceremony, A. Jane Carson, a retired army nurse who lives in Crofton, said the memorial will be "a place of healing and hope to thousands of women who suffered the invisible and silent wounds of war. . . . Love, forgiveness and healing are what this memorial is all about.
"We welcome home our sister veterans and complete the circle of healing."
Earlier in the day, she and thousands of other female veterans marched down the Mall, many in the uniform of the Army Nurse Corps. Others wore blue armbands marking their service as civilians in Southeast Asia.
For many of them, the day's events were a powerful reminder of their experiences in Vietnam.
Ms. Cardona still remembers the shock and horror she felt as a 23-year-old nurse treating her first patient in Vietnam, shortly before Christmas 1966.
"He was a triple amputee, he had lost one leg and both arms," said Ms. Cardona, who lives in Ellicott City. "I was frightened, but I did what any nurse would do. I took care of what needed to be taken care of."
She described the nights when she held the hands of men who would soon die and told of consoling amputees as they began to realize how their lives had changed in an instant.
No front lines
There were no front lines in Vietnam, Ms. Cardona said. One day near the end of her tour,the field hospital came under attack and nurses and patients alike ran for their lives.
"We went through a gamut of emotions every day," said Ms. Cardona, who attended the ceremony yesterday, "fear and joy, anger and sadness."
Ms. Carson, a retired Army colonel who was in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, agreed.
"People told us you're just nurses, you weren't in combat," she said in an interview. "Some of my sister vets never even admitted serving in Vietnam."
And even after male veterans began to receive recognition and support with the dedication of the wall in 1982, Ms. Carson and others noted, women were still forgotten. "People said you were just nurses, you weren't in combat."
Years later, while stationed in South Korea, Ms. Carson began to suffer nightmares and flashbacks. "We all thought we were the only one suffering," she said.
"The Memorial is going to help a lot of women realize and be proud of their work in Vietnam and begin the healing process," she said. "Like most of the people there, I buried the pain. There was no time to grieve."