By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
It was just a few quiet words, coming after an hour of ringing speeches, songs and other public tributes to U.S. war veterans -- especially women -- at the annual Veterans Day ceremony yesterday in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
But when Barbara Lilly, 62, a former American Red Cross worker in Vietnam, hugged Army Sgt. Danielle Modglin, 26, who was standing on crutches from an injury she had received this summer in Iraq, her brief greeting seemed especially eloquent.
"I'm a Vietnam vet. Thank you for your service, and welcome home," said Lilly, who had traveled from Denver. Modglin, who is from Pennsylvania, blushed and fought back tears. "I'm just so honored to be here," the young soldier said.
Both women were among several thousand people who gathered at the Wall to pay homage to the country's veterans, both living and dead, from historic wars to present-day conflicts.
"All those who have served, from Lexington Green to Normandy beach to Afghanistan, deserve credit for standing up to those who would harm our citizens and our way of life," said Jan C. Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
The dominant theme of the event, however, was the once-overlooked role of women, both military and civilian, who gave their lives in U.S. wars. Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, a bronze tableau of three women treating a wounded soldier, just up a grassy slope from the Wall.
Several speakers noted that the campaign to create the women's memorial had encountered numerous obstacles, but that it had helped crystallize a broader need to recognize the contributions of women who had served in all U.S. wars, most as nurses but also as volunteers or in other roles. They noted that although eight names of women in the military are listed on the Vietnam Memorial, 59 female civilians died there as well.
"We were the ones who went where we were needed and when we were needed," said Diane Carlson Evans, a former Army nurse who is founder and president of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation. "We transformed the images of war to include women." Acknowledging the role of women in Vietnam, she added, helped overcome the stereotypes of Vietnam veterans as "warmongers."
The crowd was largely composed of men, many wearing old military uniforms, patches or insignia to identify where they had served. Many had come with their combat buddies from Vietnam, and some said they tried to visit the Wall every year.
"Every time we meet here, we get a different feeling," said Russell LaMarche, 62, of Mauston, Wis. He said he always looked for his war comrades' names on the Wall. "Even if I don't touch the names, I still say, 'Hey, how are you doing?' "
There were also numerous families whose members had served in several wars. Army Sgt. Elizabeth Gaut, 37, of Northern Virginia said her husband, brother and niece were currently serving in the military. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, traveled from Missouri for the ceremony.
"This means a great deal to us," Gaut said. "Both my niece and my brother have said that if they had to, they would go back to Iraq today. It's a priceless sacrifice that runs deep in our family."
The crowd cheered vigorously when speakers welcomed a group of elderly former war nurses and several new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Onlookers fell silent when a lone bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" while standing atop the Wall.
After the ceremony, dozens of people surrounded the young veterans, gripping their hands and thanking them with tears in their eyes. Others drifted over to the women's memorial, which was covered in roses and a quilt with the eight names of military women who died in Vietnam.
"This is a confirmation that what I did was important," said Beverly Sangeleer, 61, of Melbourne, Fla., a former Navy nurse who served at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital during Vietnam. "I feel like I am being recognized as a patriot."