From Vision To Reality: The Evolution of the
In Memory Plaque
BY JIM BELSHAW
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
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
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.”