The Women: Part 2 – Chapter 35


WESTERN MONTANA

SEPTEMBER 1982

The invitation came in a smudged white envelope that was postmarked August 28 and stamped WASHINGTON, D.C. Someone had written across the back SAVE THE DATE.

You’re invited to a reunion of the

36th Evac Hospital staff

following the unveiling of the new

Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.,

on November 13, 1982

Frankie’s first reaction surprised her.

Anger.

Now a memorial to the men who had died?

Now? More than a decade after they’d been unceremoniously buried and forgotten by their fellow Americans?

As hard as Frankie had worked in the last eight years, and she’d been dedicated to the endeavor, she’d never quite been able to completely dispel the shame her fellow Americans had made her feel over serving in Vietnam, nor her anger at how the government had treated the veterans who returned broken in body or mind or spirit. Even worse than that, in the late seventies she’d sat here in her living room and watched a fellow Vietnam vet claim on television that Agent Orange had given him—and thousands like him—cancer. I died in Vietnam; I just didn’t know it, he’d said. Not long after that, the world had learned that the herbicide also caused miscarriages and birth defects. Most likely it had caused Frankie’s miscarriage.

Her own government had done that to her. Maybe if the politicians in Washington, D.C., had built this memorial as an apology to a generation of servicemen and -women and their families, she might have felt differently, but no. The government hadn’t moved to honor the veterans of Vietnam. The vets themselves had had to make this happen. Those who remained honoring those who had fallen.

She heard Donna come up behind her. Pause.

Donna had worked here at the ranch for more than seven years now. Frankie still remembered the cold day Donna had driven up to the front door, her fake black hair every which way, her skin pale from alcoholism, her voice barely above a whisper. I’m a nurse, she’d said. Cu Chi, ’68. I got your name from the VA. I can’t …

Sleep, Frankie remembered saying. That was all. Enough. Everything. She’d taken Donna by the hand and led her into the farmhouse. They’d sat in a pair of folding chairs in front of the fire and talked.

A rap session, Jill at the center had called it. It helps sometimes to feel you’re not alone. They’d been there for each other, she and Donna, often held each other upright. Donna had urged Frankie to fight for the reinstatement of her nursing license, and the fight had proven to be healing. By the time she’d officially been granted the right to be a nurse again, Frankie felt strong enough to try.

That had been the beginning of the ranch. She and Donna had joined forces, using the money from the Coronado cottage sale to make improvements.

In Missoula, both of them took nursing jobs at a local hospital. After work hours, Frankie attended night classes at the college toward a degree in clinical psychology, and a year later Donna did the same. When they weren’t studying to become counselors or working shifts at the hospital, they remodeled the house and repaired the outbuildings and attended regular meetings.

That first summer, Frankie’s friends and family had shown up to help. Mom and Dad, Barb and Jere and their growing boys, Ethel and Noah and their two kids, Henry and Natalie and their rowdy sons. They took over bedrooms and pitched tents in the grassy backyard. They worked together during the day and sat around a campfire at night, talking and laughing and remembering.

As soon as they got their master’s degrees, Frankie and Donna put up flyers at the nearest Veterans Administration office that said: To the women of Vietnam: We lived through it over there. We can live through it here. Join us.

A year later, Janet had shown up, her face blackened by bruising, her quick laugh too sharp to be anything but a substitute for crying. Janet stayed for almost a year.

From then on, the ranch they called the Last Best Place became a haven for the women who’d served in Vietnam. They came, they stayed as long as they needed to, and they moved on. Each left an imprint somehow, a path for women like them to follow. They left art and easels and paints. Knitting needles and skeins of wool, short stories and memoir chapters and musical instruments. They worked during the day—hammering nails, painting walls, feeding horses, tending the garden. Whatever needed doing.

They learned to breathe, and then to talk, and then, if they were lucky, to hope. Frankie taught them the healing power of words and the joy of finding quiet. Peace, at least the beginning of it, was the goal. But it was never easy.

The beautiful, unexpected by-product of helping other women was that Frankie found her own passion again, her own pride. She loved this place fiercely, loved the life she’d forged in the wilderness, loved the women who came to her for help and helped her in return. She woke up each morning with hope. And each summer, her friends and family showed up to spend as much vacation time as possible on the ranch. It became a haven for them, too.

“Group is ready.”

Frankie nodded, looking down at the silver POW bracelet she still wore for the major who’d never come home.

Donna came up beside her. In the years they’d worked together, both women had filled out, gotten physically strong by pounding fence posts and hauling hay bales and tossing saddles up on their horses’ backs. Both routinely wore Levi’s, cowboy boots, and flannel shirts; no shoulder pads or power suits in this part of Montana.

“There’s a lot of talk about the memorial,” Donna said. “Lots of reunions are happening.”

“Yeah,” Frankie said.

“It’s a lot to think about.”

They stood side by side, staring through the kitchen window, out at the autumn fields. Each knew what the other was thinking: they’d talked about it often enough.

Taking her cup of coffee, Frankie left the kitchen, heard Donna behind her, putting a pot of beans on to soak.

Outside, the world was awash in fall color; snow lay heavily on the jagged, distant mountains. Skiing would come early this year. The brilliant blue of the Clark Fork river meandered through the fields, swirled and bubbled over polished stones, made a sound like children laughing.

The Last Best Place Ranch now boasted a whitewashed farmhouse with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The furniture was all secondhand, garage-sale finds, as well as the stuff Mom had shipped up years ago from the bungalow when it sold.

Here, women had painted through their pain and left images on the walls, a kind of graffiti. One wall—Frankie called it the heroes’ wall—was filled with photographs of the women who’d served, those who’d come through the ranch, and others, their friends. Hundreds of photographs were tacked onto the pine planks. In the center was the picture of Barb, Ethel, and Frankie standing in front of the O Club at the Thirty-Sixth Evac. Across the top of it all, Frankie had painted in bold black script: THE WOMEN.

Three refurbished bunkhouses held bunk beds and writing desks. A fourth had been turned into a communal bathroom with showers and sinks and toilets.

The barn was still a little undone, but the roof was solid now and seven horses lived in the stalls. Frankie had learned how beneficial caring for animals and riding could be for women in crisis.

In the center aisle of the barn, six folding chairs had been set in a semicircle on the sawdust floor.

On this cool morning, four of the chairs were occupied by women.

Frankie took her chair and pulled it closer and sat down.

The women looked at her; one in a shuttered, closed-off way, one in anger, one who seemed almost disinterested, and a fourth woman was already crying.

“I got an invitation to a reunion of the Thirty-Sixth Evac,” Frankie said. “It’s tied into the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I suspect some of you may have gotten invitations, too.”

“Ha,” Gwyn said. She was older-looking, but not old, just worn out, her mouth flattened, her eyes dark with anger. “Like I want to remember,” she said sharply. “I spend half my waking hours trying to forget.”

“I’m going to go,” the crying woman, Liz, said. “To pay my respects. This memorial matters, Gwyn.”

“Too little, too late,” said Marcy, who leaned forward in her seat, put her forearms on her thighs. It was her first full day at the ranch and she didn’t believe in any of it yet.

“I am done with Vietnam, Liz,” Gwyn said. “Everyone always tells me to forget. To let it go. And now I’m supposed to go running back? Nope. Not me. Not going.”

“You’ll disappoint the people you served with,” said Ramona.

“What’s new?” Gwyn said. “I’ve disappointed pretty much everyone since I got home.”

Frankie had heard these words from every woman who’d come through the ranch, trying to right themselves after the war. She knew what they needed to hear. “You know, I wasn’t afraid to go to war, and I should have been. I am afraid to go to the memorial, and I shouldn’t be. People made us think we’d done something wrong, shameful, didn’t they? We were forgotten; all of us Vietnam vets, but the women most of all.”

The women nodded.

Frankie looked at the women, recognized their emotional wounds, and felt their pain. “I used to wonder if I would do it again, join up. Was there still a believer inside me, a last shred of the girl who wanted to make a difference?” She looked around. “And I would. In some ways, the war years were the best of my life.”

“And the worst,” Gwyn said.

Frankie looked at Gwyn, saw the woman’s anger, remembered it. “And the worst,” she agreed. “You’re right, Gwyn, I don’t think disappointing people is a reason to go to the memorial. Most of us have made too many decisions based on other people. We need to do what we need to do. But we’ve been silenced for too long, invisible for too many years.”

“It’s all about the men,” Gwyn said. “Did I tell you I tried to join a Vietnam vets talk therapy session in Dallas? It’s always the same thing. ‘You don’t belong. You’re a woman. There were no women in Vietnam.’”

The women in the circle nodded at that.

“We don’t have a memorial,” Gwyn added.

“We share that pain, don’t we?” Frankie said. “We’ve been dealing with the war for a decade, most of us, some even longer. Pushing through. I know how the Agent Orange news has brought it all back up,” Frankie said. It was a topic that came up consistently in the circle.

“I had four miscarriages,” Liz said, tears bright in her eyes. “A baby might have saved me, us, you know. And all that time, they were spraying that shit, killing us all slowly.”

“Sometimes I think dying would be easier than living this way,” Gwyn said. “We’ll probably all get cancer.”

Frankie looked at each woman in turn, saw the variations on pain. “Who here has considered suicide?” she asked.

A taboo question that she asked in each new group of women.

Gwyn said, “I’ve thought it might be a relief to … disappear.”

“That’s a brave thing to say, but we know you’re brave, Gwyn. All of you are. And you’re tough.”

“I used to be,” Liz said.

“You’re here,” Frankie said. “In the wilds of Montana, sitting in a barn that smells like manure, and saying the most frightening, intimate things out loud to strangers.” She took a beat. “But we aren’t strangers, are we? We are the women who went to war—the nurses of Vietnam—and many of us felt silenced at home. We lost who we were, who we wanted to be. But I’m living proof that it can get better. You can get better. It starts here. In these chairs, reminding ourselves and each other that we are not alone.”


In Washington, D.C., on the morning of November 13, 1982, Frankie woke well before dawn.

She’d hardly slept last night. If she’d still been a drinking woman, she would have poured herself something strong. She almost wished she was still a smoker; she needed something to do with her hands. As it was, she got up at five A.M. and pulled her old black overnight bag out of the closet of her cheap motel room. She could have brought a new suitcase on this trip, but the travel bag just felt right. It had been with her in the beginning, in Vietnam. It should be with her now at the end.

It landed on the cheap shag carpet floor with a thunk. She clicked on the bedside lamp, knelt in the pool of light, and unzipped the bag.

The smells assailed her: sweat and mud and blood and smoke and fish. Vietnam.

Don’t drink the water.

I’m new in-country.

No shit.

That’s us, giving it back to them.

On top of her belongings was a Polaroid picture taken at the O Club. In it, Ethel, Barb, and Frankie all wore shorts and T-shirts and combat boots. Jamie had an arm around Frankie’s waist and held up a beer in a toast. There was a picture of her dancing with Jamie, both of them sweaty and laughing, and another one of the guys playing volleyball in the sunlight while the women watched, and one of Hap playing his guitar.

Look at those smiles.

Good times. They’d had those, too.

Frankie pulled out her battered old boonie hat and felt a wave of nostalgia thinking of all the places where she’d worn this hat, all the times she’d had to hold it down so rotor wash didn’t whip it off her head. A dozen pins and patches decorated it, mementos her patients had given her, both from platoons and squadrons, even a happy-face pin and a peace symbol. When had she written MAKE LOVE NOT WAR across the brim in magic marker? She didn’t remember.

She’d worn this hat on her MEDCAP trips into the villages and on her supply flights to Long Binh, on the beach, and even on her R and R to Kauai. She’d worn it handing out candy to kids at the orphanages and sitting in the back of a deuce and a half, bumping over red dirt roads and splashing through rivers of mud.

And she would wear it today.

No more hiding this treasured memento away in her closet, trying to forget the woman who’d worn it. No more hiding at all.

She pulled out her dog tags, held them in her hand for the first time in years, surprised by how light they actually were. They’d taken on a weight in her mind. She thought of all the bloody dog tags she’d held in her life as she looked for a wounded man’s name, blood type, religion.

Some women had worn love beads in the sixties; others had worn dog tags.

She pulled out the stack of Polaroid pictures of Vietnam she’d brought, remembering the night, years ago now, at the ranch, when her mother had asked to see them, when they’d sat outside by a fire, a spray of stars overhead, and looked at these faded photographs of nurses and doctors, soldiers, Vietnamese children herding water buffalo along the banks of a river, green jungles, white beaches, old men in rice paddies. Mom hadn’t said much, but she’d sat there, listening, for hours.

Frankie pulled out the latest of her journals. She’d first begun journaling in rehab, at Henry’s urging. Her first sentence, written all those years ago, in angry black marker, was, How did I end up here? I am so ashamed.

In the years between then and now, she’d written hundreds of pages. They initially chronicled her pain and then her recovery, and finally her coming-of-age in Montana, on the land where she had found herself, her calling, and her passion. She didn’t have children, imagined now that she would never have children, but she had her ranch, and the women who came to her. She had friends and family and a purpose. She had the big, full life she and her brother had once dreamed of.

She opened up the first blank page, dated it, and wrote:

I can’t stop thinking about Finley today. Of course.

Mom and Dad chose not to come to the unveiling of the memorial. I wish they were here, I need them here, but I understand. Some grief is too deep to reveal in public.

We were the last believers, my generation. We trusted what our parents taught us about right and wrong, good and evil, the American myth of equality and justice and honor.

I wonder if any generation will ever believe again. People will say it was the war that shattered our lives and laid bare the beautiful lie we’d been taught. And they’d be right. And wrong.

There was so much more. It’s hard to see clearly when the world is angry and divided and you’re being lied to.

God, I wish we

There was a knock at the door. Frankie wasn’t surprised. Who could sleep? She got up, went to the door, opened it.

Barb and Ethel stood outside, beneath a feeble overhead light. A sputtering neon sign in the parking lot behind them read NO VACANCY.

“Smells like ’Nam,” Ethel said. “I wish you’d let me pay for nicer rooms.”

“It’s her damn overnight bag,” Barb said.

“I have to be careful with money these days,” Frankie said.

The three of them left the room, each wearing whatever they’d worn to sleep in, and walked down the stairs to a kidney-shaped pool that needed cleaning. Lights in the water created an aqua glow, as did the few lights on the exterior of the motel. The neon sign gave off a faint beelike buzzing sound.

“Six bucks and you get a pool,” Barb said, sitting in a creaky lounge chair.

“For seven, they might clean the pool,” Ethel said, sitting beside her.

“I’d rather they wash the sheets,” Barb said.

“Quit complaining, you two. We’re here, aren’t we?” Frankie said, stretching out on the chair between them.

“Last night, I dreamt about our first night in the Seventy-First,” Barb said, lighting a cigarette. “Haven’t thought about that in years.”

Ethel said, “For me, it was my first napalm-orphanage shift.”

Frankie stared out at the water in the dirty pool with the chain-link fence around it all. She’d had those nightmares, too, and they’d wakened her, too, gotten her heart pumping, but she’d also dreamt of waterskiing on the Saigon River, of Coyote’s howl, of Jamie’s smile, and dancing to the Doors with her girlfriends. She’d surprised herself by thinking about Rye—for the first time in years—and found there was nothing left in her that cared about him; all that remained was a patched and faded regret.

“It’s going to be crazy today,” Ethel said. “A huge crowd.”

“We hope,” Barb said.

They all considered that, feared it. The unveiling of a memorial to a war—and warriors—that no one seemed eager to remember.

“We’re here,” Frankie said. “That’s enough for me.”


In a way, even with as far as she’d come, Frankie feared that the vein of fragility in her would open up when confronted again with Vietnam and all that had been lost there.

This morning, she stared at herself in the mirror, dressed in her fatigues, seeing the young version of herself staring back. She attached her ANC pin to her collar.

Outside the motel, in full daylight, she met up with Barb and Ethel; their husbands and children would be meeting them at the memorial. This, the beginning, was just for the girlfriends.

Each was wearing her fatigues and boonie hat and combat boots.

Barb smiled. “Don’t tell me there were no women in Vietnam.”

A ceiling of white clouds lay over the city. The air smelled crisp and cold, of the coming winter.

Here on the cordoned-off street, Vietnam veterans gathered; thousands of men, dressed in uniforms and fatigues, leather jackets with military patches on the sleeves, and torn jeans. There were veterans in wheelchairs and on crutches, some blinded and being helped along by friends. Thousands and thousands of Vietnam veterans, coming together for the first time in a decade or more. There was a feeling of reunion, joy. Men clapping each other on the back, laughing, hugging.

Someone with a bullhorn yelled out, “Brothers! Let’s go pay our respects!” and the crowd began to form itself into a parade line.

Frankie and Ethel and Barb joined the line of men.

Someone started to sing “America the Beautiful,” and others joined in, hesitantly, and then boldly. Their voices swelled in song. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea. Frankie heard her friends and fellow veterans singing beside her. Spectators applauded from the sidewalks; car horns honked.

As they neared the National Mall, the vets fell quiet, all at once, with no one urging the sudden stillness. No more singing. No talking. No clearing of throats, even. They walked together, shoulder to shoulder, these men who’d fought in a hated war and come home to animosity and still didn’t know how to feel about what they’d lived through. Helicopters flew in formation overhead. As far as Frankie could see, the three of them were the only women, although they searched the crowd for nurses or Donut Dollies or other military women with whom they’d served.

At the Mall, an American flag fluttered in the cool breeze above a trio of bright red fire trucks. Supporters filled the grassy area, lined the Reflecting Pool, waited for the parade of veterans: children on their parents’ shoulders, families huddled together, mothers holding framed pictures of their lost sons, dogs barking, babies screaming. Five jets flew overhead; one peeled off from the rest. The missing man formation.

The welcome home these veterans had never received.

Veterans dispersed into the waiting crowd, joined their families, gathered in pods of old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years.

“Come with me,” Barb said, tugging on Frankie’s hand.

Frankie shook her head. “Go, girls. Be with your families. We’ll meet up.”

“You want to be alone?” Ethel said.

Frankie bit back her instinctive response. I am alone. “Go,” she said again, quietly.

Frankie moved forward on her own, through the crowd.

And then, there it was: The Wall. Gleaming black granite rising up from the green grass, the shiny surface alive with reflected movement. Honor Guards stood stationed at intervals along it.

Frankie was overwhelmed by the sight of it. Even from here, she could see the endless etchings on the stone. More than fifty-eight thousand names.

A generation of men.

And eight women. Nurses, all of them.

Names of the fallen.

In the distance, somewhere, someone tapped on a microphone, made a scratching, squealing sound that drew the attention of the crowd.

A man’s voice rang out. “No one can debate the sacrifice and the service of those who fell while serving … Standing before this monument, we see reflected in a dark mirror dimly a chance now to let go of the pain, the grief, the resentment, the bitterness, the guilt…”

As the speech went on, the speaker remarked on the world the veterans had come home to and the shame now felt by Americans who hadn’t welcomed their soldiers home. At last, the speaker said the words that Frankie and her fellow veterans had waited for all these years: “Welcome home and thank you.” The soldier next to Frankie began to cry.

The veterans sang “God Bless America.”

Their family and the visitors joined in.

At the end of the song, with the last notes echoing across the Mall, the speaker said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is now dedicated.”

A cheer rose up from the crowd, a thunderous applause.

Someone else stepped up to the podium. A grizzled, old-before-his-time vet in stained fatigues. “Thank you for finally remembering us.”

Reporters and cameramen pushed through the crowd, seeking statements for the nightly news.

Frankie drifted down the sloping grass, drawn to the Wall. She saw women holding framed photographs of the men they’d lost, and a teenager wearing his father’s too-big dress uniform.

As she neared the mirror of black granite, she saw her own reflection—a skinny, long-haired woman in fatigues and a boonie hat—superimposed over the names of the fallen. She glanced down the black line, saw men in uniform standing tall in front of it, while women knelt before it, children and parents at their sides.

“Frances.”

She turned and saw her parents moving toward her.

“You came,” Frankie said, overwhelmed with emotion.

Her mother held a framed photograph of Finley to her chest. Dad held tightly on to Mom’s other hand. “I wanted to see his name,” Mom said quietly. “My son. He would want me here.”

The three of them moved as one to the Wall, searched the names and dates.

There he was.

Finley O. McGrath.

Frankie reached out to touch the stone; to her surprise, it was warm. She traced the etching of her brother’s name, remembering the sound of his laughter, the way he teased her, the stories he read her before bed. I’m going to be a great American novelist … Here, Frankie, that’s your wave. Paddle hard. You got it.

“Hey, Fin,” she said.

It felt good, to think of him as he was, as he’d been. Not just as a casualty of war, but as a beloved brother. For too many years, all she’d thought of was his death; now, at the Wall, she remembered his life.

She heard her mother crying, and the soft, wrenching sound of it brought tears to Frankie’s eyes, too, blurred her vision.

“He’s here,” Frankie said. “I feel him.”

“I always feel him,” her mother said in a voice that held on to sorrow. Beside her, Dad stood rigid, his jaw clenched, afraid even here to show his grief.

“Ma’am?”

Frankie felt someone tap on her shoulder and say again, “Ma’am?”

She turned.

The man who’d tapped her shoulder was maybe her age, with long sideburns and a straggly beard. He wore torn and stained fatigues. He pulled off his boonie hat, which held patches from the 101st. “Ma’am, were you a nurse over there?”

Frankie almost asked how he knew; then she remembered that she was wearing her fatigues and boonie hat, and her winged ANC pin.

“I was,” she said, studying the man, trying to remember him. Had she held his hand or written a letter for him, or taken a picture with him or brought him a glass of water? If she had, she didn’t recall it.

She felt her father step closer to her. “Frankie, do you—”

Frankie held up a hand for silence. For once, her father complied.

The soldier reached out to hold her hand, stared into her eyes. In that moment, on the Mall ground, with the Wall shining beside them, the two of them shared it all—the horror, the grief, the pain, the pride, the guilt, the camaraderie. She thought, Here we are, for the first time since the war, all of us together.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, and she nodded and let him go.

Frankie felt her father’s gaze on her.

She turned, looked up at him, saw the tears in his eyes. “Finley loved his service, Dad. We wrote letters all the time. He found himself over there. You don’t need to feel guilty.”

“You think I feel guilty for urging my son to go to war? I do. It’s a thing I live with.” He swallowed hard. “But I feel more guilt about how I treated my daughter when she came home.”

Frankie drew in a sharp breath. How long had she waited to hear those words from him?

“You’re the hero, aren’t you, Frankie?”

Tears blurred her vision. “I don’t know about a hero, Dad, but I served my country. Yeah.”

“I love you, Peanut,” he said in a rough voice. “And I’m sorry.”

Peanut. God, he hadn’t called her that in years.

Frankie saw him crying and wished she knew the perfect words to say, but nothing came to her. Life was like that, she guessed; it was all wrong until suddenly it was right, and you didn’t really know how to react in either instance. But she knew love when she saw it, and it filled her. “I don’t know about heroism,” she said. “But I saw a lot of it. And…” She drew in a deep breath. “I’m proud of my service, Dad. It’s taken me a long time to say that. I’m proud, even if the war never should have happened, even if it went to hell.”

Her father nodded. She could see that he wanted more from her, absolution maybe, but there was time ahead for that.

This. Here. Was her time. Her moment. Her memories.

She left her parents standing in front of Finley’s name, and walked along the Wall, looking for 1967–1969, seeing the flowers and pictures and yearbooks that were being set up at the base of the black granite. She saw a Gold Star Mother standing beside a pair of confused-looking teenagers trying to construct their lost father from letters carved into granite.

She followed the line of names, looking for Jameson Callahan—

“McGrath.”

Frankie stopped.

He stood in front of her. Tall and gray-haired, with a jagged scar along one side of his face and a pants leg that ruffled against a prosthetic.

“Jamie.”

He pulled her into his arms, whispering, “McGrath,” again, into her ear.

Just that, being called McGrath again, hearing his voice, feeling his breath on her neck, sent her back to the O Club, beaded curtain clattering, the Beatles singing, Jamie asking her to dance. “Jamie,” she whispered. “How—”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small gray stone that read:

YOU FIGHT

MCGRATH.

The stone she’d been given by the young Vietnamese boy in the orphanage, and which she’d slipped into Jamie’s duffel bag. “It was a hellhole over there and worse when we got home,” he said quietly, “but you got me through it, McGrath. Remembering you got me through.”

“I saw you die.”

“I died lots of times,” he said. “They kept dragging me back. I was in bad shape for a long time. My injuries … Christ, look at me…”

“You are still as handsome as ever,” Frankie said, unable to look away.

“My ex-wife would disagree.”

“You’re not—”

“It’s a long, sad story with a happy ending for both of us. I stayed with her for years. We had another baby. A girl. She’s nine, and a real spitfire.” He stared down at her. “Her name is Frances.”

Frankie didn’t know how to respond; it was hard to draw a breath.

“How about you?” he said, trying to smile. “Married, with kids?”

“No,” Frankie said. “Never married. No kids.”

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly; he of all people knew how much she’d wanted that life.

“It’s okay. I’m happy.”

She gazed up at him. On his face, she saw all that he’d been through: the jagged jawline scar, the pucker of skin along one ear, the sadness in his eyes. His blond hair was long now, threaded with gray, a reminder that they’d been young once together, but weren’t anymore, that there were scars on both of them. Wounds that remained, seen and unseen.

“God, I’ve missed you,” he said in a cracked, scratchy voice.

“I’ve missed you, too,” Frankie said. “You could have found me.”

“I wasn’t ready. It’s been rough. Healing.”

“Yeah,” Frankie said. “For me, too.”

“But we’re here now,” he said. “You and me, McGrath. Finally.”

He gave her a smile that made her feel young again. For a moment, time fell away; they were Frankie and Jamie again, walking through camp, keeping each other upright, sharing their lives, laughing and crying together, loving each other.

She felt the start of tears, felt them on her face as she stood there, surrounded by her fellow Vietnam veterans, the wall of black granite blurring behind them.

Jamie moved toward her, stumbled; she reached out to steady him. “I’ve got you,” she said, her words echoing his from long ago. There was so much to say to him, words she’d gathered and stored in her memories, dreamed of saying, but there would be time for that, time for them. Today, just being here, holding his hand, was enough. More than enough.

Miraculous.

After all these years, so much pain and regret and loss, they were here, she and Jamie and thousands of others. Battered and limping and in wheelchairs, some of them, but still here. All of us. Together again. In a group, at a wall that held the names of the fallen.

Together.

Survivors, all.

They’d been silenced, forgotten for too long, especially the women.

Remembering you got me through.

And there it was: remembrance mattered. She knew that now; there was no looking away from war or from the past, no soldiering on through pain.

Somehow Frankie would find a way to tell the country about her sisters—the women with whom she’d served. For the nurses who had died, for their children, for the women who would follow in the years to come.

It started here. Now. By speaking up, standing in the sunlight, coming together, demanding honesty and truth. Taking pride.

The women had a story to tell, even if the world wasn’t quite yet ready to hear it, and their story began with three simple words.

We were there.

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