- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2000

Are you a vet? As we reflect on Memorial Day 2000, these are four little words that can be asked with wonder, curiosity or respect. Are you a vet? Four little words that can bring pride to a heart and peace to a soul.

Are you a vet? Four little words that after 26 years of service that included Vietnam and Desert Storm no one has ever said to me. But times change, they always do and it is on occasions such as Memorial Day that bring these changes to the forefront.

Whenever I visit Washington, I am always drawn to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Women's Memorial that honors those who served and those who died in Vietnam.

More than 11,500 women served in Vietnam in capacities ranging from intelligence and air traffic control to supply and logistics. And, of course, there were the nurses. I know, I was one.

It's true, we all volunteered to be in service to our country, but many of us with our recruiters' solemn promise that "of course, you won't have to go to Vietnam it's strictly voluntary even the nurses that want to go can't," and we believed them.

Still, when our orders arrived, sending us to war, most of us believed in our hearts that we were needed, that what we were doing was important, and that it was our duty to go.

We went to our jobs, faced the perils of enemy fire, the horrible heat and humidity, disease, insects, isolation, long work days and sleepless nights dealing in life and death on a daily basis. And, every day we managed to pull ourselves together, dab some perfume behind our ears and do it all again.

We learned a lot about ourselves. We discovered our strengths and tried to survive our weaknesses. We were ordinary young women trying to function in the most extraordinary circumstances.

After a year we came home. We knew we had changed, that our lives would never be the same, and that we could not explain any of it to the folks back home. For as unacceptable as it was for the guys to talk about the war, no one wanted to acknowledge that women had been there.

The underlying message was very clear: Nice girls do not go to war. We came home quietly, went back to our homes, our families, our jobs and never spoke about the war to anyone.

I go to the Wall and the Women's Memorial now. But that was not always the case. For more than 20 years I never volunteered the information that I was a Vietnam vet. I, like many vets, believed I was alone that no one knew where I had been or what I had done or what I had seen or how I felt.

It wasn't until I allowed myself to be in the company of other veterans that I discovered I wasn't alone. In fact I had a whole lot of company. Men and women who served in Vietnam, in Desert Storm, in Panama, in Somalia, in Mogadishu and places many Americans have never heard of. Men and women who served proudly, honorably and passionately. The ones who did their duty, came home, kept their silence and may still believe they are alone. It is for these and other veterans that I joined the board of a new organization, the Veterans Resource Network Association (VRNA).

Our job is to recognize, to honor and to bring together a group with a common past to forge a more productive future.

The Veterans Resource Network Association is designed to educate and counsel veterans about their rights to benefits from the Veterans Administration, deliver valued benefits and services from the private sector and enhance the lifestyle of members through healthcare and financial services. We also want to help veterans locate and talk to their buddies and to other veterans over the Internet and, most important, inform Americans about the role veterans have played in keeping our country independent, safe and free.

Today, there are some 25 million veterans here in America and only a small percentage are now members of any veterans organization. We are not here to replace the existing veterans groups but have found a willingness on the part of veterans to join an organization if it offered the right kinds of services and benefits. We believe we have met that need.

Our goal is to reach out to those veterans from all branches of the military, the National Guard and the Reserves who have served this country so well for so long and who want to be recognized for that service.

For too many years, too many veterans have felt they were alone. That they were forgotten by society while still believing they did the right thing. They served their country well and now we want to rekindle that pride to help them find strength in their numbers and answers to their questions.

It is our way of saying: Thank You and Welcome Home.

Lt. Col. Janis Nark, USAR (Retired) enlisted in the Army immediately following college graduation and became a registered nurse. She was ordered to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam at the age of 21.

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