How the ‘In Memory’ program helped widow of Vietnam vet find peace after loss
Betty Kelly lost her husband, Dennis A. Kelly, on April 23, 2012. He passed away from illnesses due to his exposure to Agent Orange. Dennis was as a Corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps and served in-country from September 1965 to March 1966. He served with the 1st Amtrak Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, Amphibious Tractor Unit. Like thousands of other Vietnam veterans who returned home from the war, Dennis succumbed to illnesses related to his service.
“As he lay dying, knowing that Agent Orange was causing his death, he said he would serve all over again for his country,” Betty said on his Honor Roll page.
A few years following Dennis’ death, Betty chose to honor his sacrifice through the In Memory program. VVMF’s In Memory program honors Vietnam veterans who returned home from the war and later passed away as a result of their service. Having a veteran honored through the program includes an invitation to say their name at the In Memory ceremony in Washington, D.C.
In June of 2015, Betty traveled from Long Island, New York to read her husband’s name on the National Mall, the place our nation has set aside to remember Vietnam veterans. She did not know what to expect when she arrived. The emotional power had not come over her until she sat through the ceremony and watched hundreds of family members read their veteran’s name aloud. She listened as they shared the struggles their veteran endured, sometimes silently, for decades. Betty noticed how everyone spoke from the heart, as if dignity came through every word they spoke. She came away with an overwhelming sense of peace.
“I felt that this was the welcome home that was never there when Vietnam veterans returned home,” Betty said. The ceremony became a place so many had searched for – a place of acceptance, inclusiveness, and compassion.
After she inducted Dennis into the In Memory Honor Roll, Betty came away with a profound sense of closeness to the widows she met. There was pride in honoring Dennis and she felt parts of her grief lifted when she worked to keep his memory alive.
Betty has made it a tradition to return to the In Memory Ceremony every year since Dennis was inducted. The ceremony has given her so much, including a place of understanding. People are there to listen during life’s most painful moments and no one is turned away for their suffering and grief. She can’t imagine not coming back every year.
Over the years, the In Memory Ceremony has transformed into an entire weekend. Events include a Friday evening gathering and participation in the Father’s Day Rose remembrance on Sunday. Betty has made it a point to attend the gathering, where she meets the families of new honorees.
“I listen to their stories, I feel their heartbreak and pain, I understand why they have come. I understand what the weekend means to them,” she said. “The stories are all similar, and also agonizing.”
During the Father’s Day Rose Remembrance, the public lays roses at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to honor the dads whose names are on The Wall, those who never got the chance to become fathers, and those honored through the In Memory program. Betty takes this day to soak up the meaning of the weekend. She collects her white roses from VVMF and places them near the In Memory plaque. She then sits in gratitude on a nearby. She is grateful for this experience with others – the chance to share in sadness, in stories, and in a newly found peace.
An In Memory Facebook group was formed in the winter of 2017. The goal was to bring together the families of Vietnam veterans inducted into the In Memory program so they could connect with one another after the ceremony. The group has become a place of community and grown to more than 3,000 members. Loved ones share their stories and find solace in one another.
“We are so diverse, wealthy and poor, every skin color, from different social and economic backgrounds,” Betty admits, “but we connect instantaneously because of our common bond. This group has been, and always will be, a lifeline to me as I grieve my loss.”
Betty joined VVMF’s In Memory Circle of Friends in 2017 as another way to show her commitment to the program. The In Memory Circle of Friends is a community of supporters who are fulfilling the promise to “Never Forget” and encourage one another through compassion and shared understanding. Commonly known as “The Circle,” people can join by contributing an annual donation of $250 to the In Memory program. Donations help VVMF maintain the program and build a network that fosters the coming together of families around the country. This kind of ongoing compassion helps bring healing to those who continue to feel the effects of the Vietnam War. The Circle makes sure all families have the chance to find some peace.
“This has given me the opportunity to support past and future inductees,” Betty affirmed. “By supporting the program through the In Memory Circle of Friends, I am able to give back to others what I received from the program.”
VVMF asked Betty why the In Memory program was important to her. Her response was simply, “How could it not be?”
The program transformed her agony, sorrow and heartbreak into “joy, tranquility and appreciation.” She has been able to give Vietnam veterans, like her husband, the recognition they deserve.
To learn more about the In Memory program, click here.