|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Maintaining The Memory
A few years ago it became apparent that a new angle was needed on the In Memory plaque on the grounds of Washington, D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial – literally. The plaque, which honors veterans who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of that service, had been flush with the surrounding plaza since it was dedicated in 2004. Because of that positioning it had deteriorated due to foot traffic and water pooling, and was easily overlooked.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the plaque’s keeper, and VVA and AVVA, which had lobbied for years to have the plaque on the memorial’s grounds, agreed that the granite memorial needed to be raised and angled to insure visibility and legibility to honor those it commemorates – some 6,200 veterans to date.
“One day, there will be more names on that honor roll than there are actually on The Wall,” said AVVA President Sharon Hobbs. AVVA was the driving force in replacing the original In Memory plaque with a much-improved version in 2019.
This may sound like a fairly minor undertaking, with the plaque measuring just 24 by 36 inches. In reality, the bureaucratic odyssey and costs involved in altering a monument that forms part of a national memorial require sustained, dogged commitment.
“Just the process of reviewing designs and having that approved is incredibly long, laborious, and costly,” said Jim Knotts, VVMF’s president and CEO.
The origins of the In Memory plaque date to 1992 when Ruth Coder Fitzgerald’s brother, a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, died of Agent Orange-related, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Encouraged by others in similar situations, she started the Vietnam War In Memory Plaque Project three years later.
In 1998, with the support of her local VVA Virginia Chapters — Piedmont Area Chapter 752 in Culpeper and Battlefield Chapter 617 in Woodbridge — Coder Fitzgerald, a writer and historian, made a presentation to the VVA Public Affairs Committee and earned its endorsement. VVA then began lobbying for the In Memory Plaque, and Congress passed a resolution calling for the plaque’s installation in 2000. It was dedicated at a candlelight ceremony hosted by VVA in 2004.
The granite slab’s inscription reads: “In memory of the men and women who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service. We honor and remember their sacrifice.”
“The Plaque is important [to veterans’ families] because it is a physical marker that represents the fact that their loved one’s service mattered,” Knotts said. “That’s particularly important for Vietnam veterans, because the Vietnam War is unique in American history in that it is the only war where those who fought are the ones who got blamed for it.”
THE HONOR ROLL
VVMF’s In Memory program enables families and friends of veterans who died after they came home of war-related causes to see them memorialized on its In Memory Honor Roll, which includes the name, photo, and biography of each inductee. To apply, go to VVMF.org/InMemory-apply
Along with the completed form, applications need to include:
“We don’t even look at the specific cause of death anymore,” Knotts said. “The plaque says, ‘Who later died as a result of their service,’ but what we found over the years is that it’s not always so clear cut. So, we take the approach that we want the In Memory program to be more inclusive, rather than exclusive.”
The original 2004 In Memory plaque was not what Coder Fitzgerald and her supporters envisioned: a raised, canted plaque with lighting and signage. With support from VVA and AVVA, she lobbied the National Park Service and the American Battle Monuments Commission and, in 2012, the plaque was replaced with a new stone inlaid with more visible bronze lettering. Coder Fitzgerald died the following year, her vision for the In Memory plaque still not entirely realized.
“So, we took it upon ourselves to bring awareness to it, to give it a presence,” Sharon Hobbs said. “We struggled for years and years with bureaucracy.”
Approval of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the National Park Service, and the National Capital Planning Commission was required. As well as a raised and tilted plaque, the new design included metal posts and a chain and addressed the water pooling by installing a French drain. A light added to a nearby pole now helps to illuminate the plaque.
The new plaque was rededicated on Memorial Day 2019 by Hobbs, Knotts, and VVA’s then-Vice President Marsha Four.
Vietnam War veterans are continually added to the In Memory Honor Roll, with the names of new inductees read by relatives or volunteers at an annual ceremony on Father’s Day weekend. This year, more than 500 will be added, the second highest number to date.
“I’ve had multiple family members let me know how meaningful this is for them,” Maury Izzett, the program manager of VVMF’s In Memory program, said. “I’ve even gotten some folks who said, ‘The death of my brother [or] the death of my father has really caused some stress in my family. This program has helped bring us together.’”
While AVVA’s direct involvement with the plaque ended with its re-dedication, the organization remains committed to raising awareness of the In Memory program. AVVA, for example, includes an insert explaining the program with condolence cards it sends to families of recently deceased veterans.
“For some families, this is the first time that their loved one’s Vietnam War service is recognized publicly and on a large scale,” Knotts said. This “is incredibly meaningful for the surviving families who suffered alongside their veterans.”
For more info about the In Memory program and the Honor Roll application, call VVMF at 202-393-0090 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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