What became known as the ‘Vietnam War’ was fought between the communist regime of North Vietnam and its southern allies, known as the Viet Cong, against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. US troop numbers began increasing in Vietnam in March 1962 and a bloody, protracted war ensued with huge losses on all sides. An estimated four million people died, including 58,307 Americans, before the withdrawal of US troops in March 1973.

According to the blockbuster movies and the majority of books about the Vietnam War, only men were involved. The stories of an estimated 10,000-15,000 military women and civilian women who served in support of the US Armed Forces, in-country in Vietnam have, until recent years, been left unsaid and unheard. Not even the US Government knows exactly how many women served for their country.

For returning women veterans, being spat on at the airport was just the beginning of their private aftermath. Only men could carry the title ‘Vietnam Vets’. So they faded into silence and tried to get on with lives, careers and families, burying their inward and outwards scars, shame or pride, horror or honour … all mixed up with memories of friendships forged and loves found. Many women have since died without daring to reveal they served in Vietnam, or how it changed their lives, for better or worse, but certainly forever. Nor did they receive recognition from the country they served.

Now, half a century since the first women landed in Vietnam to take up their duties, their voices are being heard thanks to their own courage to end the silence.

Here is the first of two posts on the Women Vietnam Veterans, to accompany the evolving exhibition Poppies: Women and War. They will merely scratch the surface of the bigger picture that was the Vietnam War. The second post will come to you from Washington DC where I shall meet some of these women. In September I plan to be in Vietnam itself, meeting Vietnamese women who fought, and suffered, in what became the most controversial war in modern history.

First, the US Army Nurse Corps, the Registered Nurses who began arriving in Saigon in 1956 and by 1968 saw their numbers swell to 900, the majority of them female, tending to the sick and injured, on all sides. By 1973, when the last troops left, 5,000 nurses had served.

Here, Diane Evans contributes to the anthology of poetry, Visions of War, Dreams of Peace Writings of Women in the Vietnam War (edited by Lynda Van Devanter and Joan A. Furey 1991).

Left Behind

I search my soul
And memories of war
To find that lost space
That part of me that’s gone
Left in Vietnam so many
Years ago and hoping
Someday to find it and
Make me whole again
I didn’t leave behind
A limb, an arm or a leg
What is it then that’s gone
It can’t be seen and
Perhaps just as a lost
Limb it can never be

1st LT Diane Carlson Evans served with the US Army Nurse Corps in 1968 and 1969 at the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau and the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku.

Photos © Diane Evans: at work at a hospital in Vietnam, 1968; at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington DC which she worked to establish in 1993.

More on the Women of the Army Nurse Corps www.vietnamwomensmemorial.org/pdf/iwest.pdf

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Concepcion Picciotto

Concepcion Picciotto (known as Connie) maintained a protest for peace and against nuclear war in a plastic makeshift tent outside the White House in Washington DC. Her vigil, lasting 30 years until her death in January 2016, is considered to be the longest political protest in American history.

She is believed to have been a Spanish immigrant who arrived in New York in the 1960s. In 1981 she took up residence on the sidewalk by the White House fence, with fellow activist William Thomas who began the peace vigil. They were moved to a site across the road where she lived, alongside one of the most powerful leaders in the world. Five presidents of the US ignored her. I read that not one of them crossed the road from the White House to listen to her appeals for peace and justice. She appeared in Michael Moore’s documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11, which was scathingly critical of President George W. Bush’s war on terror.

In 2007 I made a portrait of Ms Picciotto, giving me the V-sign of peace, as she sat facing the White House, clad in her trademark hat and helmet. This image will be shown in the touring Poppies: Women and War exhibition, as it enters its second phase.

Meanwhile, as I head back to Washington in the next few weeks, and take a walk to the White House, I wonder if this, her home for three decades, will be gone without a trace.

Or whether it will be occupied.

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Christmas in Sierra Leone wih Gladys and Rebecca

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December 2015
Today I’m packing my cameras, notebooks and Yorkshire tea, plus special gifts for Sierra Leone. This will be my seventh visit to the West African country, but one that comes after a long pause, during which a lot has happened, for me and for them.

For the first Christmas ever my parents will not be here, so I’ve decided not to be here too.

For many people in Sierra Leone this season will be a difficult one also, without parents, children, siblings and friends lost to ebola. Though the country has been given the all-clear, there is an observation period in place from now until February, as borders are porous and the disease keeps rearing its ugly head in neighbouring countries. Ebola and its aftermath are causing problems, and my heart goes out to those left behind coming to terms with loss, as well as the vulnerable youngsters and orphans, and the survivors suffering health and social problems.

Still, there will be joy at seeing my female friends again - Rebecca, Julie, Sally, the two Cecilias, Sarah - and getting back to work recording life and lives. Gladys has promised to cook jollof rice until our ‘bells-full ping ping!’. I remember the burn of the hot pepper on my tongue and the sounds of burnt grains being scraped from the bottom of the cooking pot and never thrown away. She asked me to bring along mixed spice for the Christmas cake. She is an expert baker at her charcoal fire, controlling the temperature by shifting the lid of the pot and blowing on the coals.

We will all miss much this Christmas but one thing’s for sure, In Sierra Leone we women will not be alone.

Gladys preparing dinner © Lee Karen Stow

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In a field in North Yorkshire, the red poppies and the white poppies grow freely, side by side.

I know this because I visit each summer to photograph them. The red poppies are in their thousands and far outnumber the white poppies, which number seven to ten. Chris, the local farmer swears he sees more of the white poppies reaching up amidst a blood red carpet each year. It's profoundly moving and like nothing I have ever seen before. It is no illusion. Here at least, the red poppies of remembrance and reflection live hopefully with the white poppies of peace

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