"At my age, I would enlist again tomorrow if the Army would take me. I'm an American citizen and every American citizen has a debt to democracy."
With that, Bessie L. Robinson, an 83-year-old retired Army sergeant major and a great-great-grandmother, straightened her back, lifted her chin and reminded everyone else in the lounge at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home here that it was Memorial Day.
"If we forget to remember, who will remember those who went before us?" asked Robinson, a World War II and Korean War veteran who has lived at the home for 22 years. She is one of 70 female residents of the home, a permanent residence for 2,100 Army and Air Force veterans.
"If they start scraping the barrel, I'll go, too," said Orval Bowen, 80, a retired Air Force master sergeant sitting nearby. "I try to keep my legs in shape."
"We did it because we wanted to. Too many people did it because they have to," added Reva F. Iadonise, a retired Air Force technical sergeant, referring to her days as a volunteer member of the military versus the days of the draft.
To the casual observer, yesterday was a day pretty much like all others at the 300-acre home at 3700 North Capitol St. NW. There were the usual 6 a.m. wake-up knocks on the door of each apartment, breakfast from 6:30 to 8 a.m., lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and dinner from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
In the early morning sun, many of the veterans sat outside on park benches and lawn chairs beneath huge shade trees, reading the morning paper, catching an occasional breeze or chatting with friends. Other residents played golf on the three-par course or tried their luck at one of the two fishing lakes. A few men, some in bibbed overalls, hoed their small vegetable gardens.
"We don't really push Memorial Day because it's associated with death and some of our members will be soon making their last roll call," said a Soldiers' Home spokesman, noting that "the average age of a member is 68."
Still, in the middle of the courtyard, in front of the Sherman Tower, the American flag flew at half-staff. In the cafeteria, the fresh flowers were removed from the vases on the dining tables and replaced by tiny American flags. After breakfast, a bus took some residents to visit Arlington National Cemetery.
Robinson, wearing an off-white suit and white shoes, with two white silk roses in the back of her gray hair, was going on her own to Arlington, to visit the grave of her only child, a son who also served in the Army.
"I've had seven members of my family to serve in the Army," she said, listing, "my son, two brothers, myself, a grandson and two great-grandsons who are in the Army now. Four generations."
Robinson said she served in the original Women's Army Auxiliary Corp (which became a part of the regular Army in 1948) and was with the only segregated group of black women to be stationed in Europe during World War II. She enlisted in 1942 and retired in 1963.
"I know for some Negroes, being in the Army at the time seemed to be difficult. But for me, there are no sad stories. I enlisted because it was my duty. I had good assignments and dealt with intelligent people.
"I was in Paris on V-E Day and that was a glorious time," she added. "We danced through the streets with all the French soldiers. It was a day one would never forget."