(USA TODAY) -- Diane Carlson Evans was a nursing student in Minnesota in the late 1960s when she noticed her male friends and classmates getting called up one by one to go to Vietnam.
Very much aware of the war, she visited a recruiter and asked how she could join the effort.
"I decided I needed to be there, too," she says.
The Army needed nurses, so, after graduating college and undergoing basic training, she served as a nurse in evacuation hospitals in Vung Tau and Pleiku, Vietnam from 1968 to 1969.
Carlson Evans says she and other nurses put their youth and inexperience aside to treat serious injuries and unfamiliar diseases while serving in combat zones.
"We were young taking care of the young," she says.
The memory and legacy of the women who served in Vietnam and paved the way for future generations will be honored at the annual Veterans Day observance Monday with a ceremony at 1 p.m. at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Also, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, located near the iconic Vietnam Wall.
Carlson Evans, who is the founder and president of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation, says she initiated the effort for a women's memorial when she found out that a statue of three men would be added to the Vietnam Memorial in the early '80s.
"Every story is about the men. People don't even know women were in Vietnam," she recalls thinking at the time. The women's memorial "heightens awareness that women went off to war, and this is what they did. And their contributions are worthy of recognition by the nation."
Sculpted by Glenna Goodacre, the bronze statue depicts three uniformed women with a wounded soldier.
During her time in Vietnam, Carlson Evans says about 90% of women serving were nurses, while the rest made up the Woman's Army Corps in areas such as administration, finance and bookkeeping. In the 1960s, women made up about 1% of the total military force. Today, they make up 15%-20%, she says.
Following Vietnam, Carlson Evans says some women would go on to serve in leadership roles, becoming "fully integrated" in the military.
Lori Perkio, assistant director of education at the American Legion national headquarters in Indianapolis, says that while women in the past were seen as individuals needing protection, the roles have expanded significantly. Perkio served in the Army from 1980 to 1984 in the military police.
In January, then-Defense secretary Leon Panetta decided to open previously off-limit posts in armor, infantry and special operations to women. Later in June, the Pentagon issued its timeline for allowing women to serve in front-line combat roles by 2016.
"It's become a reality," Perkio says. "Slowly, women have been put into roles that were considered gender-specific for men. ... Women are wanting to participate side-by-side by their male counterparts in combat to serve our country."
In reality, women in combat roles are nothing new, she says. It happened in the Gulf War, including women serving as helicopter pilots.
"Women were actually gunners," Perkio says. "Women performed many different tasks that put them in potential direct line of fire."
Kristine Hesse, the women veterans outreach coordinator at the National Veterans Foundation, agrees that women are already in combat and completely integrated in the military.
"We're pushing forward and at a faster pace in the service," says Hesse, who served 24 years in the Air Force and retired about two years ago. "The recognition is coming because we are doing these jobs now."
When people argue that women should not serve in combat zones because men will be too busy taking care of them, Carlson Evans says she finds it laughable.
"In Vietnam, I had 45 men in beds, and, as a woman, I was protecting them," she says.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee for the past seven years, says she continues "to be amazed by the contribution women in our military have made to our national security."
"The past 20 years have seen a dramatic increase in the overall number of women in the military, as well as women in unprecedented leadership roles," she said in an e-mail. "We've seen women step into new jobs and missions, and most dramatically, the services are moving to open front-line combat positions that had previously been closed to women."
At the invitation of Carlson Evans, retired general Colin Powell will be delivering the salute to the Vietnam Women's Memorial.
"As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I spoke at the groundbreaking of the Vietnam Women's Memorial in 1993, so it will be especially poignant for me to speak this Veterans Day as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Women's Memorial," Powell, who fought in Vietnam and later served as secretary of State, said in an email. "I most especially want to acknowledge the 11,000 women who served in Vietnam, mostly as nurses."
Powell said the bronze statue "celebrates the hope, strength and passion that the Vietnam women brought to the struggle for life in Vietnam."
"They paved the way for the large-scale increase in the number of women in the Armed Forces serving in almost every occupational specialty."
For its founder, the memorial stands as a visual reminder of all the women who "exceeded expectations" and ultimately opened doors for those who followed.
"We proved our strength, our courage, our bravery," Carlson Evans says. "We stand on the shoulders of every generation that (stood) before us."
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY