Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was the featured speaker during Veterans Day ceremonies at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. National Vice Commander Robert Newman (red cap) represented The American Legion and laid a wreath at The Wall. (Photo by Craig Roberts)

Women Vietnam veterans honored at The Wall

“It’s always difficult not to cry.”  That was the reflection of Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient Joe Carr of Norfolk, Virginia as he departed the annual Veterans Day observances at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – The Wall – in Washington, D.C. Monday.  Carr, in his fifth visit to the site, was remembering five buddies whose names are engraved into the memorial’s face. Carr had accompanied American Legion National Vice Commander Robert E. Newman in placing a wreath along the base of the black granite monument at the event’s conclusion.

A sunny sky and pleasant temperatures drew the largest audience seen in several usually cold and rainy years at The Wall on Veterans Day, 2013; a year that marked the 20th anniversary of the erection of the nearby Vietnam Women’s Memorial.  Appropriately, women veterans dominated the 90-minute observance. Diane Carlson Evans, founder and president of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation, served as emcee. Vietnam veteran flight nurse Chaplain Linda Pugsley delivered the invocation. Jan Daley, USO entertainer and veteran of Bob Hope’s Vietnam tour, sang.

The first of the two keynote speakers, both Vietnam veterans, was retired Army nurse Col. Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer. She spoke on behalf of her sisters in Vietnam by referencing the societal changes that, in her view, they influenced. “Just like the men when we returned, we were subject to ridicule, obscenities, rejection and revulsion,” she said. “We took off our uniforms, denied our service, bottled up our experiences, and festered the memories affecting our lives and relationships for the duration. However, the Vietnam experience also created an adrenaline high and many of us sought the thrill and the challenge of changing the world when we came home. 

“If you ever wonder what our legacy has been, think about what has transpired in the military since Vietnam. Treatment of post-traumatic stress after psychological trauma is now standard of care. Illness and birth defects from chemical exposure are recognized as serious illnesses. The Women’s Army Corps is no more. The draft no longer exists. Women can have dependents and be in the military. Sexual orientation is no longer a consideration to service.  The combat exclusion has been lifted. The Department of Defense is taking seriously sexual assault and sexual harassment. The woman sitting beside you may be a general or a command sergeant major.

“Today, the country appreciates the sacrifice and dedication of servicemembers and their families.  We no longer have to remove the uniform (when) coming home. We have made a difference after serving in silence after Vietnam.”

The second featured speaker of the afternoon was former Secretary of State and retired Army Gen. Colin Powell. His tribute to women centered around the tale of Maya Ying Lin, the woman who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “The birth of the wall was difficult and it was controversial,” he said, “… and on this day when we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the women’s memorial, it is well to remember that it was a woman who had the inspiration and the vision that became this wall.

“Maya Lin was a 21-year-old architectural student at Yale University when she learned of this competition (to design the memorial). She was the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She had no military experience whatsoever, no real knowledge of military history. Yet she saw something that others did not see. And out of over 1,300 proposals, she won in a blind competition.

“There was a great deal of controversy about the wall (and) about Maya Lin. Some said that it wasn’t a traditional war monument. But then again, Vietnam was not a traditional war.  She’s Chinese, some complained. No, she’s an American who happened to be ... born to immigrants from China, just as I am an American who happens to be black – and proud of it – (and) to be born of immigrant parents. It is well to remind ourselves today that it isn’t your color that makes you an American. it isn’t where you and your parents came from. It is not what state you were born in, or how rich or poor you are, or what your political beliefs are. What makes you an American is in your heart. It is your love of this country and your willingness to serve it in whatever way you can. There are no such distinctions on that wall.”

After the speeches, patriotic songs and wreath laying at The Wall, a smiling Newman expressed what being at The Wall meant to him. “Because I am a Vietnam veteran, this ceremony was very special,” he said.