Facing Their Memories

Wartime nurses Emily Strange, left, of Wisconsin and Joan Muller of Bethesda listen to others share recollections at the Vietnam Women's Memorial.
Wartime nurses Emily Strange, left, of Wisconsin and Joan Muller of Bethesda listen to others share recollections at the Vietnam Women's Memorial. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 12, 2005

In a sea of military badges and unit patches and medals and faded combat fatigues on the Mall yesterday, the satin purple jacket stood out.

Embroidered with Army insignias, the jacket was the same hue as the ribbon on the Purple Heart that Jerry Houston, 68, was awarded after being shot in Vietnam in 1966. Houston wore the jacket yesterday, his first Veterans Day spent in Washington, on a mission to deliver a long-overdue thank-you and hug to any military nurse he could find.

"You're welcome. Thank you for remembering us," said Sgt. Maureen Johnson, 69, who was a physical therapist in charge of Army amputees during the Vietnam War. She had not met Houston before, but she appreciated his giant, purple hug.

After crying with another woman he thanked profusely, a woman he also had never met but who reminded him of those who tended to his wounds 30 years ago, Houston wiped his tears. "It's time for me to thank them, to thank all of them. They took such good care of me," said Houston, who traveled from Phoenix for the annual ceremonies.

The official Veterans Day in Washington also included speeches and parades. Vice President Cheney placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery and spoke. In front of the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pumped up a crowd of veterans when he thanked them during an enthusiastic speech.

But for others, the event was quiet and emotional. They are the ones who box up their memories 364 days a year, reserving Nov. 11 for the tears and the pain.

The veterans who came included a small group of World War II survivors as well as the newly returned veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. They wore patches from the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and the newest one from Operation Iraqi Freedom: "Dysfunctional Veteran -- Leave Me Alone."

The largest event was at the Wall, where a group of baby-boomer veterans gathers annually.

"I come here every year on this day, and I'll keep doing it until the day I die," said Terry Henry, 58, a retired truck driver who travels here each November from Allentown, Pa., to remember his time in Vietnam and the friends who died there. "I try not to think about it the rest of the year. You can't. It's too much."

Attention also was paid at the Vietnam Women's Memorial, which was dedicated 12 years ago. Someone left a pack of Marlboro Reds at its base, with a message written in pen: "Thanks Liz, for my life. Trapper." About a dozen women stood at a microphone nearby, sharing their stories.

Among those listening were some who said they had to learn how important it is to talk about it, to remember.

"For years, I didn't talk about it. I blocked it out of my life. It was something I wanted to forget," said Joan Muller, 57, who was a nurse in Vietnam in 1970 and now lives in Bethesda. "But I guess I can't. Because, lately, it all keeps coming back."

Each year, she and a wartime friend, another nurse also named Joan, come to the women's memorial and tell stories.

"It took a long time -- years -- for them to remember us," said her friend Joan Garvert, 58, who travels from Springfield, Ill., every year to mark Veterans Day.

"You don't always think about the girls. When you think of veterans, you usually think of men," said Dennis DuPuis, 56, of Eastover, S.C., who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

Annie Cunningham, 61, spoke into the microphone about mortar fire and bodies, as well as the moment in 1967 that she realized that she could die in Vietnam.

"When I got back to the States, I wouldn't talk to my folks. I couldn't talk about it. They were expecting the little kid they sent to Vietnam. She was gone forever," said Cunningham, of Charlottesville. "It took me about 15 years before I could talk about this."

Garvert and Muller listened to Cunningham and empathized with how hard it is to talk about the horrors they experienced. "Maybe, someday, I'll be able to tell my story up there," Muller said. "Not yet, though."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company