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Once More, With Feeling

November 17, 2018

the wall

Last weekend was such a whirlwind. First – an all day plane ride from Washington (the state) to Washington (the city) to attend the 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Women’s Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall near the Wall.

Then -the next morning – early – a video interview with a production company making a documentary on women in Vietnam. The interviewer and camera crew were young, energetic, highly skilled. They reminded me so much of the “kids” I trained as Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. I was so jazzed: just to be with them and watch them work gave me new energy. It made me really want to give them what they needed: a good story. After a LONG interview, I was tired, but wonderfully alive.

 

Without time to breathe, we were whisked off to a restaurant and a brunch for women who had worked for Army Special Services or the Red Cross (the “Donut Dollies”). The room was crowded, the food was mediocre, but the discovery of old comrades I hadn’t seen in almost fifty years made it all worthwhile.

brunch

“Nikki…!!! Do you remember coming to the opening of the club in Vinh Long?” Tiny gray-haired Nikki smiled and looked blankly at me. “Not really….” Then I re-created the picture of her youthful self: small and sassy with straight jet black hair. “You danced with every guy there…remember??” A smile slowly came to her face, “yes… yes, now I remember. I remember that one young kid I danced with… damn, he was good!” And in her eyes and her voice, there was a glimmer of the young hot-shot she once was.  

Then – on a bitterly cold night- we were off to a candlelight ceremony at the Memorial now known affectionately as “The Women’s Statue”. The bronze of the three figures glowed in the floodlights as we waved plastic candles and sang and remembered. Thirty five years ago, Diane Carlson Evans, a young woman who had been a nurse in Vietnam, looked at the statue of the three soldiers near the Wall and wondered – where are the women?

 

It took ten more years to make that Memorial a reality. Just getting site approval involved four years of work: getting approvals from seven different agencies and five different pieces of legislation through the  Senate and House. At first, the memorial was directed only at nurses, but gradually Diane and her supporters realized that many other women had served in Vietnam and the vision was opened to include them as well. At least 11,000 military women served in Vietnam, but the actual number of civilian women is not known. However, between 1966 – 1972, some 300 – 600 civilians served in Army Special Services – 75% of which were women. I was one of them – serving as a Service Club Director in Can Tho and Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta. And here we were all gathered – military and civilian – in the freezing wind to pay tribute to Diane’s vision and the incredible memorial created by sculptress, Glenna Goodacre. As I circled the statues of the three women, the lights and the speeches and the voices of the crowd faded away. I stared at the figures… and  felt again their pain; exhaustion, and looming despair… and the grit that kept them going. I saw the strength in the taut muscles of their faces and the sinews of their arms as one of the figures cradled a wounded GI. And just as I had done twenty years before, I reached out and touched them – gently. And I was once again honored to be considered one with them.

Wall 9

And then it was Sunday… time to go once again to the Wall, to mingle with the now aging vets and their families, gaze at the roses and the medals and the fading photos of the young men they remember today… and all days.

The Wall4

I chatted with a vet and his wife from New Jersey. Just last month, he found out that a kid he knew really well in high school was killed in Vietnam.  He was searching for his name; I watched his fingers go up and down the panel in a random, confused sweep. Gently, I intervened… “What line is he on, sir?” “Line 26” I counted down with him to Line 26. The name he was searching for was the first in the line. His eyes filled with tears and he began to choke up as his wife patted his arm. Quietly, I left them there … to search for another name. He was my commanding officer at Vinh Long Air Base killed during the Tet Offensive… LTC Bernard David Thompson…from Los Angeles, CA…killed January 28, 1968. I traced my fingers gently over his name as I remembered the man….

And then, we waited in a long line – for fifteen, twenty minutes while the security dogs scanned the hundreds of folding chairs set up for the ceremony. The sun sparkled on the autumn leaves – red and gold – poised to fall soon to the grass below. When I finally found my seat in one of the front rows, I turned to look at the wreath that- with another Special Services “girl” – I would place near the wall. I was so honored to be there; to be in that spot; to do this incredibly simple but profoundly moving task. My mind wandered and I saw images of all the young women I had worked with: Georgeanne, Kay, Sharon, Judy, Christy, Renna… and some whose names I couldn’t remember, but whose faces I could see and voices I could hear. They were all of them echoing in my head. I remember you… and I am here to honor you all… on this day.  

TheWall 7 

 

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