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Two women who served on the front lines of the Vietnam War recall what kept them going

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative, recording and sharing the stories of service members and their families. As we get close to Veterans Day, we are featuring voices of vets who can often go overlooked - women who served on the front lines of war before they were allowed in combat. Army nurses Diane Evans and Edie Meeks met in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War. They were bunk neighbors stationed in the central highlands of Plaiku. StoryCorps - they remembered their service.

DIANE EVANS: We were in a very dangerous place in Vietnam, just surrounded by concertina wire. It was the epicenter of the fighting at the time. I remember the sound of shrapnel and the sound of thuds and rockets and mortars and that horrible, terrifying sound. But we didn't have time to be afraid. What we did was run to our patients and put mattresses on top of them and take care of their IV lines so they wouldn't pull apart.

EDIE MEEKS: I mean, we were their only defense between the rocket attack and death.

EVANS: Yes. But I remember one night we were not on duty, and there was the worst sound I've ever heard in my life - hopefully never hear it again. The mirror on the wall in my little tiny closet-like room that I had fell off the wall and burst into a million pieces. And I decided, well, if I'm going to die, I'm going to die with Edie. And so I crawled out of my little room over these glass shards. I knock on Edie's door, and there you are with your helmet on over your rollers. And you were eating peanut butter and crackers under the bed. I said, Edie, how can you eat at a time like this? And you said...

MEEKS: Listen, I'm going to die happy. I'm going to die full - peanut butter, little chocolate, little crackers (laughter).

EVANS: I loved that sense of humor at the time, and I still love it. And that's how we survived. But, you know, if we had died that night, Edie, we would have been in each other's arms. We would have been together. And I think maybe our biggest fear was we didn't want to die alone. And because of that feeling, we stayed so close to our guys.

MEEKS: Yes. When I got home, everybody expected me to be the person I was when I left. And I wasn't. You know, the only guys that I could really remember were the guys that died.

EVANS: Yeah.

MEEKS: And so it was like I didn't really do anything over there. And it wasn't until the Vietnam Women's Memorial that this fellow came up to me, and he said, hi, Edie. It was this corpsman named Tom. And I said, what are you doing here? He said, I came to see you.

EVANS: We wondered all those years if we did a good job, and they came out of the woodwork all across the country. They were walking with their crutches and wheeling their wheelchairs and doing their wheelies like they always did when they were patients of ours. They wanted to find the nurse who took care of them because they wanted to say thank you. And that in and of itself is so healing. It's just something that's hard for anybody who wasn't there to understand. It's spiritual. It's sacred. And we are sisters, and we are brothers.

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SIMON: Diane Evans and Edie Meeks. In the 1980s, Diane founded the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project in Washington, D.C., and she spent a decade fighting opposition to build it. Veterans continue to meet there to this day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.