A half-dozen women stood arm-in-arm in a bitter cold wind last week at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
They came from across the country and across the world. Among them were a white artist from Berkeley, Calif.; a Navajo school teacher from Window Rock, Ariz.; an African American health insurance administrator from Vallejo, Calif.; and a Vietnamese doctor from Hanoi. But they stood on common ground, each having lost a husband to the Vietnam War.
"For me, this moment brings together a dream I've often had," said Barbara Sonneborn, of Berkeley.
Sonneborn was 24 when she was awakened by a knock on the door one morning in 1968 and informed by an Army representative that her husband, Jeff Gurvitz, had been killed in Vietnam.
Sonneborn was devastated but eventually moved on with her life, remarrying and becoming a successful artist. But she never lost her anger. "I felt Jeff had been misused in a war that I had my questions about," she said.
In 1988, Sonneborn said she was "seized by lightning that I needed to do something."
The 10-year quest that followed took Sonneborn to Vietnam and led her to seek out other widows from all sides and aspects of the war.
The effort has culminated in a remarkable and overwhelmingly sad film about the war and its repercussions.
The movie, "Regret to Inform," which was nominated in 1999 for an Academy Award, was broadcast nationally Monday by PBS.
Sonneborn and some of the women featured in the film traveled to Washington and four other cities this month as part of "a season of remembrance," coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the end of the war after the fall of Saigon in April 1975.
"We believe women can be an unprecedented force for peace," Sonneborn said.
For several of the women, the visit to Washington on Jan. 19 marked their first visit to the Vietnam veterans wall. "I just returned from seeing my husband's name, and it broke my heart," said Lula Bia, a Navajo from Window Rock, Ariz.
Bia's husband, Michael, also a Navajo, was drafted after finishing high school and was eager to serve. "I don't understand the reason why he had to die, but I want to honor his memory," she said.
Bia said the group's anti-war message was a way to do that. "Maybe somewhere along the way I can change somebody's heart," Bia said.
Norma Banks's husband survived the war but died in 1989 at age 44 of multiple cancers attributed to his exposure to Agent Orange defoliant.
"I feel his name should be here on the wall," said Banks, who lives in Vallejo, Calif. "He died as a result of the war. When the fighting ends, it's not the end of the war."
Also in the group was Nguyen Thi My Hien, born in what was North Vietnam and now a pediatrician in Hanoi. Her husband was killed by U.S. bombing. "To think, as a doctor, I saved many lives, but I could not save his," Hien said.
Hien now works caring for children with disabilities, some of which were from the effects of Agent Orange.
The group is building an interactive, online International Widows of War Memorial. Information on the memorial effort is available at the Web site www.regrettoinform.org or by calling 1-877-END-WARS.
Sonneborn calls it "a project of healing and reconciliation."
Jeff Gurvitz, she said, would be proud. "I think he would be delighted," she said, walking along the wall that bears his name. "I have felt his guidance throughout this project. I've felt his smile."
Md. Loses, Va. Gains
Folks at the Maryland National Guard are irate that they have once again been jilted. For the second time, Maryland has been left off the Defense Department's list of states selected to receive weapons-of-mass- destruction response teams.
Maryland's loss is Virginia's gain. The commonwealth was one of 17 states selected by the Pentagon on Jan. 13 to receive the National Guard units, which are staffed, trained and equipped to respond to terrorist attacks involving chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
The 22-member units are part of a Defense Department initiative to better prepare the country for attacks involving weapons of mass destruction.
"The unit will advance Virginia's capabilities in responding to and recovering from a terrorist attack, especially the greatest of terrorist threats . . . chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological devices," declared an elated Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R).
When the Pentagon was selecting the first 10 states to receive the units in 1998, Maryland had expected to be on the list. The Maryland Guard had been conducting training on its own on how to respond to a chemical or biological attack.
Because of that work, the National Guard Bureau subsequently directed the Maryland Guard to develop a prototype response team. Maryland officials assumed they would be selected as the team with the responsibility of assisting the nation's capital.
But when the list came out, Pennsylvania was on it and not Maryland.
Interestingly, Pennsylvania's team was mobilized to be ready to assist Washington in the event of Y2K disaster and spent the New Year's weekend at the Maryland Guard Armory in Laurel to be closer to the District, said Col. Howard Freedlander, executive officer of the Maryland Guard.
"How do you explain a Pennsylvania team staying in a Maryland Guard armory?" Freedlander said. "We can't overstate the irony."
Besides Virginia, the new list includes Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
"Iowa? Why Iowa? I don't think that's a population center," Freedlander said. It's hard for us to take a look at this list."
The Virginia team will be based at Fort Pickett in Blackstone, Va., southwest of Petersburg, which isn't a whole lot closer to Washington.
"Look at that distance when you look at response time," Freedlander said.
But truly, Virginia's selection is not that mysterious. It might have something to do with the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner (R-Va.).
"I thank Senator Warner for his efforts in making this special unit a reality," Gilmore crowed.
Steve Vogel can be reached at email@example.com via e-mail.