How the ‘In Memory’ program helped widow of Vietnam vet find peace after loss
Betty Kelly lost her husband, Dennis A. Kelly, when he passed away from illnesses related to his exposure to Agent Orange in 2012. Dennis was a Corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps and served in Vietnam 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 that cut his life short.
“As he lay dying, knowing that Agent Orange was causing his death, he said he would serve all over again for his country,” Betty wrote.
A few years following his death, Betty chose to honor his sacrifice through the In Memory program, hosted by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF). The 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 honor them at a 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, at the place our nation set aside to remember our 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. It was as if dignity came through every word they spoke. A flood of emotions were left floating in the air and 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,” she said. The ceremony became a place so many had searched for – a place of acceptance, inclusiveness and compassion.
After Dennis was inducted into the In Memory Honor Roll, Betty found comfort. She came away with a profound sense of closeness to the widows she met. An unspoken bond was formed and never left.
“I came home from the ceremony feeling so many emotions,” she added. 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 her husband 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 reception 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, she admits.
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, the men who never got the chance to become fathers, and the men in 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 to honor Dennis. She then sits on a nearby bench in gratitude. She is grateful for this experience, for the chance to share in sadness, in stories, and in a newly found peace with so many others.
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.
The In Memory program has become part of Betty’s life forever, honoring those who died for their country, as a result of the effects brought home from a war fought so long ago.
To learn more about the In Memory program, click here.