Ruth Coder Fitzgerald's brother, John Keath Coder, died in 1992, more than 20 years after he served in Vietnam.
But Fitzgerald, a resident of Fredericksburg, Va., has never stopped believing that her brother was another victim of the war.
John Coder was in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971 as an Air Force helicopter pilot who went on missions to pick up downed jet pilots, Fitzgerald said.
Coder--"a Norman Rockwell-type person," in his sister's words--made it home to Iowa and raised a family. But he became ill in 1989, eventually dying at age 49 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer that his doctors believe may have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
"He was luckier than a lot," Fitzgerald said. "He came home and lived a life."
Soon after her brother's funeral, Fitzgerald grew angry over the lack of recognition given to his sacrifice and to those of others whose deaths were connected to their Vietnam service--the "hidden casualties," she calls them.
Fitzgerald, a freelance writer, has launched a drive to place a plaque near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, where the names of more than 58,000 service members killed during the war are inscribed on a black granite wall.
"The beauty of the wall is the names, but the names end," Fitzgerald said. "There's nothing there that says people kept dying, and that's why we feel an addition should be made."
The memorial Fitzgerald proposes would be a simple 3-by-3-foot ground-level plaque, possibly along the walk between the Three Soldiers and the Women's Memorial statues, inscribed with these words: "In memory of American veterans whose postwar deaths are attributed to their Vietnam War service. Their names are not inscribed here, but their spirits are ever present."
Special ceremonies honoring veterans who died after the war have been held at the memorial since 1993, but Fitzgerald wants a permanent reminder. To pursue her idea, Fitzgerald has created an organization in Fredericksburg called the Vietnam War in Memory Memorial Plaque Project.
Supporters include Virginia Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), who serves on the group's board of directors. Her husband, Lewis B. Puller Jr., was severely disabled by a booby trap while serving as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam. Lewis Puller, who went on to write "Fortunate Son," a Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, killed himself in 1994, a death attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I think ultimately Vietnam was what killed Lewis," Puller said last week.
A plaque remembering those who died after the war ended would be a comfort for family members, Puller said. "I think it'll heal a lot of wounds that are left over from that war."
Retired Navy Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., whose son Elmo Zumwalt III died in 1988 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma attributed to Agent Orange exposure, also serves on the group's board of directors.
Adding a plaque on the Vietnam memorial grounds is no simple matter. It would require enabling legislation from Congress, review by the National Capital Memorial Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and approval by the National Park Service.
Puller said she has written letters to Virginia's congressional delegation and received supportive replies from the offices of the state's U.S. senators, John W. Warner (R) and Charles S. Robb (D).
Fitzgerald and her husband, Barry, have created a Web site at member.aol.com/vietwarmem/plaque.htm, which includes information about the project and links to Congress. The organization can be reached at 540-371-3253.
Fitzgerald, who is seeking supporters for her project, knows that she may be in for a struggle. "I have no clue what will happen," she said. "I do know a lot of Vietnam veterans really like this project."
A little additional recognition has come late in life to a group of World War II veterans from Maryland.
More than 100 people, including family members, politicians and military representatives, gathered at the World War II Memorial in Annapolis on Aug. 11 to see the veterans awarded the Medal of the Jubilee of Liberty.
The Regional Council of Normandy had the medals minted five years ago to present to veterans who came back to Normandy in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The governor of Normandy later authorized the medal to be presented to any Normandy veteran who was unable to attend the 50th anniversary ceremonies but was part of the invasion from June 6 to Aug. 31, 1944.
"Unfortunately, not every Maryland Normandy veteran was able to attend the ceremony in France," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R-Md.) at the Annapolis ceremony.
Marylanders who received the medals include John Strong, of Baltimore; Warren Sody, of Sparks; J. Edward Johnston, of Lutherville; Earl Kelly, of Aberdeen; Robert Ayd, of Baltimore; Harold Crowe, of Frostburg; Alfred Fisher, of Freeland; Harold L. Jones, of Mays Chapel; and Harry Lofland, of Havre de Grace.
Change of Command
The 29th Infantry Division, the famed National Guard unit that landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, has a new commander.
Brig. Gen. H. Steven Blum, formerly the assistant commander of the 29th and the Maryland Army National Guard's assistant adjutant general, succeeded Maj. Gen. Carroll Childers at a change of command ceremony Aug. 14 at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County.
The division, the most decorated in the Army National Guard, has units in five states: Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Blum, a resident of Reisterstown, Md., called his selection to command the 29th "both a humbling experience and the honor of a lifetime."
The 29th, made up mostly of troops from Maryland and Virginia, suffered 2,500 casualties on D-Day and had more than 20,000 killed or wounded during the war.
Steve Vogel's column appears every other week. He can be reached at email@example.com via e-mail.
CAPTION: Brig. Gen. H. Steven Blum gives Earl Kelly the Medal of the Jubilee of Liberty from the Regional Council of Normandy. Kelly is among D-Day veterans from Maryland who were honored.