This weekend we've been observing Veterans Day. Fortunately, in the last number of years, Veterans Day has taken on a renewed meaning and sense of purpose.
The Vietnam War has been over for 40 years. The memories of lost friends and loved ones who served are indelibly etched in our minds as permanently as the 58,939 names that are etched in the black granite memorial that was dedicated on Nov. 13, 1982 in Washington, D.C.
I served in the military, stateside, during an unpopular war, in part, to protect the rights of those who wish to speak out against the many challenges we face in our country.
Many of us who served during the war were products of a childhood where responsibility had been elevated to the level of religion. We were totally aware of how messed up the country, and the war effort, was at the time. We had lived through the cultural upheavals and social injustices of the 1960s — the riots, lynchings, murders, assassinations, and general mayhem that tore at the very fabric of our existence.
A year ago, I visited the Vietnam Memorial in honor of a generation who gave their all at a difficult time in our country's history. Approximately 60 feet away from the Vietnam Wall, stands a smaller monument with an outsized impact.
The Vietnam Women's Memorial, located in the National Mall at 5 Henry Bacon Drive SW, in Washington, was designed by Glenna Goodacre, and was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1993 to the women who served and sacrificed in the Vietnam War. The memorial is haunting. It chillingly depicts three nurses attending to a dying casualty of the war.
It took Diane Carlson Evans, RN Army Nurse Corps, Vietnam 1968-69, nine years of hard fought advocacy to get the women's monument added to the Vietnam Memorial. This in spite of the fact that nearly 11,000 women served in the military in Vietnam. The service of women in Vietnam had an outsized impact of the war and those who served. The memorial said it best, "Despite the lack of national recognition, these woman demonstrated courage, commitment, and sacrifice."
According to the foundation, 67 American women — eight military women, and 59 civilians — died in the war. Thirty-eight civilian women died in a plane crash on April 4, 1975 during Operation Babylift, the evacuation of South Vietnamese orphans. Among the four women POWs, two were executed by burning them alive on Nov. 2, 1972 in the town of Ban Kengkok, near Savannakhet, Laos. The mission to save them was scrapped because it was deemed "politically inflammatory at a sensitive moment."
Also among the "civilian" casualties was a Midwestern girl "from next door." According to an article in The Washington Post written by Ian Shapira, on May 6, 2012, Barbara Annette Robbins, was 21 years old when she was killed in Saigon by a car bomb on March 30, 1965.
According to the 2012 Post article, it was not until a private ceremony took place in 2011 that it was revealed by then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta that Robbins was the first female killed in the line of duty to be added to the CIA's "Book of Honor."
"She is the youngest CIA employee ever killed. And, according to Panetta, she was also the first American woman to die in the Vietnam War," reported the article. According to multiple historical accounts, the second female CIA employee to die in the war, Betty Gebhardt, was killed in 1971.
According to a Washington Post story about the Women's Memorial, by Ruth Tam, on Nov. 8, 2013, a colleague of Evans, Edie Meeks, said of her service during the Vietnam War, "I didn't know how to talk about it … I literally could not speak about it. Every once in a while, Diane would call and I'd tell her that if I looked at a monument, I'd start crying and I felt like I'd never stop."
Meeks "threw away her Army nurse's uniform after Vietnam" and still suffers from PTSD. The memorial transformed a painful tour of duty into something worth sharing. "None of us are getting any younger," she said. "We were bitter and angry about how the country treated the Vietnam generation. The monument has allowed us to let go of that and feel joy and happiness."
All these years later I do not know anything about feeling any "joy and happiness," over the war as a result of visiting a monument; but Veterans Day has taken on a new meaning.
As our country endures the cold winds of adversity and difficulty upon the occasion of this weekend's Veterans Day ceremonies, our own dedication to America's spiritual and national values must be steadfast.