5 Things ‘In Memory’ Gave Families of Vietnam Veterans Who Passed Away After The War


Tributes of 2016 In Memory honorees are laid at The Wall to remember the sacrifices they made after the Vietnam War ended. (Michelle Lea)

Tributes of 2016 In Memory honorees lay at The Wall to remember the sacrifices veterans made after the Vietnam War ended. (Michelle Lea)

“Not everyone who lost his life in Vietnam died there. Not everyone who returned from Vietnam ever left there,” John McCorkle said after hearing the story of Glen Johnson. Glen passed away in 2011 as a result of illnesses attributed to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.

Glen was one of the 312 honorees at the 2016 In Memory Day Ceremony, recognizing those whose lives were cut short due to illnesses related to their service.

There are thousands of veterans who returned from Vietnam to battle scars and wounds in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, diabetes, cancer, or heart attack. Many of their ailments were caused from their exposure to chemical defoliants. They are ineligible for inscription on The Wall under Department of Defense guidelines.

Every year, VVMF hosts the In Memory program to recognize the sacrifices these veterans have made and to bring awareness to the lasting effects of Vietnam. For many, the war is not over – it simply continues. Friends and loved ones were asked to share what they got out of the 2016 ceremony. VVMF broke their responses down into five takeaways.

5. The connection with other people

VVMF’s In Memory ceremony brought more than 2,000 loved ones together from across the country. They sat in chairs on the East Knoll lawn across from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Many held tributes of the veteran they were honoring.

“Look around you,” said Jim Knotts, President and CEO of VVMF. “You are not alone.”

At the beginning of the ceremony, speakers reminded the families in attendance that everyone shared similar experiences. Every loved one had experienced  loss after the war and In Memory brought them face-to-face with those who battled the same post-war struggles.

It took more than two hours, but every family walked onto a stage on the East Knoll  to recognize their loved one. Inclusion into the In Memory program includes saying your veteran’s name on The National Mall. As their eyes gazed out into the audience, the attendees were no longer strangers, but a family of strength.

4. Name recognition

The families of  In Memory honorees were able to leave Washington, D.C. knowing that the names and faces of their heroes would be remembered long after the two and half hour long ceremony was over. Each honoree is remembered on an online memorial page called the In Memory Honor Roll. The Honor Roll is a place where loved ones can leave remembrances, share stories, and submit photos of honorees. Bios for each of the more than 2,800 veterans can be read online and are updated at family and friends’ request.


3.  Validation 

The ceremony also gave an air of acceptance. It justified and welcomed the feelings that came with loss: anger, helplessness, and sadness. This was a place to open up about the struggles they dealt with on the home front. Many family members expressed searching for affirmation. Their hearts remained heavy for answers and responsibility for what their loved one’s experienced. From the denial of illnesses attributed to exposure to Agent Orange to improper care by the Department of Veterans Affairs, they searched for a way to be heard.

“My husband was shot through the lung in Vietnam and wounded two other times.  He died three weeks after his 39th birthday,” said Judith Waldron about her husband James. James was drafted into the Army in 1967.

He died in 1986 of a blood clot to the lung. He was receiving a combat wounded disability when he died. The VA cut her off, saying his death was not service connected.  “All I wanted was some recognition,” she said. Judith admitted that this program helped her find the validation she was searching for.

2. Closure

The ceremony on June 18 proved to be a powerful coming together. It “gave spouses and relatives of Vietnam veterans a place to be.”

When Laurie Fifield approached the stage with her family in tee shirts that bore the names of this year’s honorees, she remembered her husband as well. He passed away in 2009.

“Richard suffered from PTSD,” Laurie recalled. The first six years after he returned home was an emotional roller coaster. At times, he was hostile. He suffered from alcoholism and triggers. She expressed her support of the In Memory program because it provided honor and some closure to families of Vietnam veterans, many of whom came home broken. “Hearts are still mending. It is important for loved ones to know that there is awareness for every single veteran who put their lives on the line, so they are not forgotten,” she said.

Michelle Lea - In Memory 2016 (179)

The playing of Taps at the conclusion of the In Memory Ceremony, June 18, 2016.

1. A final “thank you”

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a fitting place to honor the men and women who honorably served their country. Ronald Reagan once said that the veterans of Vietnam were, “what we can only aspire to be: giving, unselfish, the epitome of human love, to lay down one’s life so that others may live in freedom.” The Vietnam War continues to take Americans today, and families are still feeling its effects.

Families stood atop of the podium with their tributes in hands to recite their loved one’s name in the place our nation has set aside to remember them. Each honoree was individually acknowledged. Taps was played, their tributes were brought to the Wall, and laid next to their fallen brothers and sisters.

After the ceremony, the 312 In Memory heroes were no longer silent or unseen. Their families expressed a sense of healing knowing their sacrifices were finally recognized.

Robert Stevens - In Memory 2016 (356)

To honor a loved one through the In Memory program, click here.