The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
October/November 2004
FEATURE
 
 

From Vision To Reality: The Evolution of the In Memory Plaque
 

BY JIM BELSHAW

Eleven years after it began, Ruth Coder Fitzgerald sounds surprised to be talking about it in the present tense. To speak of its completion is to acknowledge the reality of the  struggle’s success, an outcome she always hoped for but whose likelihood she often described as “miraculous.”

“It’s surreal now that it’s over,” she said.

An in-ground plaque has been installed near The Wall, its inscription marking more than a decade of determination by Coder and others who argued in its favor: “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.”

Unveiled in July, the In Memory plaque will be dedicated on Veterans Day with VVA, a strong supporter of the effort from its earliest days, conducting the ceremony.

In 1992, Coder Fitzgerald’s brother, John Coder, a Jolly Green Giant pilot in Vietnam, died from complications arising from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 49. His cancer had been attributed to Agent Orange exposure during the war.

Coder Fitzgerald requested that his name be added to The Wall. The request was denied.

In 1993, she became active with the now-defunct Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The group conducted an In Memory service to honor those who died as a  result of the war but whose deaths came long after the war ended. John Coder was among the first ten to be honored.

In 1995, still dissatisfied that her brother and others had not been properly recognized for their service and sacrifice, Coder Fitzgerald wrote to family members of those who had died or who had Agent Orange-related diseases. The response encouraged her to move forward with an effort to establish a permanent marker.

In 1996, she incorporated The Vietnam War In Memory, Inc. She organized a board of directors and began work on getting a permanent marker near The Wall. She thought it  would be “miraculous” if she succeeded by 2001 or 2002. The miracle, borne of long years of work, came about in 2004.

“I never imagined it would happen,” she said. “I thought, 'God bless people for trying.' I thought we’d get to the point when someone would say, ‘Nope, not gonna happen’, and  we could at least look each other in the eye and say that we tried. So the fact that this was successful is, well, give me a wordincredible?”

VVA Public Affairs Chair Jim Doyle underscored the importance of recognition that those who died had done so serving their country.

“At the end of the day, it’s a simple desire to have that service and the fact that their service eventually caused their deaths to be recognized and acknowledged,” Doyle said.  “People like Ruth and the others wanted that recognition. They didn’t ask for anything special. They didn’t want people to bow down and kiss their feet or throw garlands at them. They wanted only for people who served to be recognized. The war has been over for 30 years and it’s still claiming casualties. I hope the In Memory plaque will remind people that once  the parades are over, people still suffer the trauma of war, whether it’s emotional or  physical. It affects families, it affects the workplace, and it affects communities.”

VVA President Tom Corey, speaking of the tenacity and determination shown by Coder Fitzgerald and other family members who toiled for so long to bring about the In Memory plaque, underscored Doyle’s words on the importance of recognizing the sacrifice of those who served.

“It shows what we can do when we focus on something like this,” Corey said. “What drives people like Ruth are family members and friends whose lives ended prematurely because of their service to the country. She took on these challenges to keep the memory of these people alive. She has such great determination.”

Coder Fitzgerald’s first endorsements from VVA came from Virginia Piedmont Area  Chapter 752 in Culpeper, Virginia, and from the Battlefield Chapter 617 of Woodbridge, Virginia. The Virginia State Council added its support and national VVA representatives testified in support at Senate and House hearings.

Endorsements from across the veterans’ community followed VVA’s own: the National Congress of American Indians, Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation, Gold Star Mothers, Blue Star Mothers, Agent Orange Widows Awareness Coalition, Order of the Silver Rose, The Quilt of Tears, Vietnam Veteran Ministers, and others.

“A lot of things have touched me, but back in 1999 people would e-mail and say they were thankful that we were going to have this plaque,” Coder Fitzgerald said. “I would write back and say, ' Well, we don’t have it yet.’ But they were so thankful and appreciative that we were even trying. That response surprised me in that it was so sad because we as a nation haven’t been good to these people and they’ve been ignored. It was like they were saying, ‘Hey my husband or father or son died because of Vietnam and nobody cares.’ It really touched me that they were so happy we were even trying.”

In the summer of 1999, she mentioned to a neighbor that she was working on the project. The neighbor sent out brochures to her Christmas card list. One of the recipients brought the project to the attention of Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.). In November of that year, Gallegly introduced a bill asking for an addition to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.).

The bills were signed into law in 2000.

“We’ve been at this for a long time,” Coder Fitzgerald said. “It’s a memorial to those who died, but it’s also a recognition that they were Vietnam veterans and an acknowledgment of their service. In preparation of the official VVA-sponsored dedication this Veterans Day, we sent out word and a man in a PTSD group in Michigan said he was so excited. I thought, wait a minute, this plaque is for the dead, but then I thought, this must have meaning for many people who are alive, too. It means they’re remembered.”

   

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