Trip to Women in Military Service for America Memorial won't soon be forgotten by local veteran
Some experiences can never be forgotten, as if their impact is so great they’re destined to exist in the memories of those who lived them forever.
Moments like these helped shape the life of U.S. Air Force veteran Patsy Phillips. A February trip to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at the entrance the Arlington National Cemetery is now among them for the resident of Black Mountain's N.C. State Veterans Home.
As the Vietnam War raged on the Indochina Peninsula, the Greensboro native followed in her father’s footsteps and enlisted in the Air Force. An administrative assistant on Kadena Air Base in the city of Okinawa, on the Okinawa Prefecture in Japan, Phillips played an important role.
“What I really did, was work for the 491st Tactical Missile Command on a strategic air command base, a strike-first base,” she said. “I worked in a room and we received orders for strikes and we would take those to the war room. I was still a secretary, but I had a crypto clearance, which is above top secret.”
Phillips was considering a career in the military until an unforgettable experience altered that course.
“There were only 80 WAFS (Women in the Air Force) there and about five bases in Okinawa; there were about 80,000 men stationed there,” she said. “There was a Marine base with a five-story hospital and they received patients, sometimes directly from Vietnam, but mostly from Germany and they would be in a bad way most of the time.”
The women would visit the hospital on a rotating schedule and Phillips can still vividly recall those trips.
“Sometimes we wrote letters, played checkers and sometimes all they wanted was to hear an American voice,” she said. “Some of these guys were missing arms, legs, eyes and would hear news that their girlfriends had left them back home and they would cry about it. It was a horrible situation.”
While their presence brought light to a dark place, leaving proved difficult for the women, Phillips recalled.
“When we left it was horrendous,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was doing anything to help them. They told us we were, but I didn’t feel like it. It seemed like with every visit I was having to call the nurse because they were in pain and I couldn’t do anything to help them.”
Phillips decided she never wanted to be in a situation where she couldn’t provide relief for a person in pain. After three years of service, she pursued a career in nursing.
“There’s no doubt that was a turning point for me,” she said of the time spent comforting young soldiers.
She spent time in Fayetteville before returning Greensboro, where she attended Guilford College. After her 30-year career in nursing, Phillips completed Bible College and embarked on a medical mission trip to the Amazon River in Peru.
She remained proud of having served her country and when the Women in Military Service for American Memorial Foundation began raising money and lobbying Congress to construct a tribute for veterans like her, Phillips eagerly signed up.
“They sent out letters to all of the female military personnel to see who would be interested,” she said. “At that time there was no memorials for women who served in the military, and I felt like there should be something.”
She encouraged family members and others to write letters in support of the memorial even before a location had been selected. In 1997, Phillips was among the 30,000 people who attended the dedication of the Women in Military Service for American Memorial. She hoped to one day return to see it completed.
Phillips had all but given up on the dream of returning to the memorial by the time she was admitted to the Veterans Home, which is operated by long-term health care service provider PruittHealth.
“I’d been in the hospital, very sick,” she said. “I waited for two years to get admitted here, and one of the questions they asked during the admission process was if I had any items left on my bucket list.”
It was more than a year later when admission director Tonia Holderman stopped by Phillips’ room.
“She started talking to me about my experiences and I didn’t think anything of it,” Phillips said.
Unbeknownst to Phillips, PruittHealth has long participated in a program called Second Wind Dreams, which helps seniors realize unfulfilled dreams.
“I wanted to interview Patsy for this,” Holderman said. “As we talked, I listened to her talk about the memorial and could immediately tell from her expressions that this was very important to her.”
In recent years Second Wind Dreams has partnered with PruittHealth to provide a late resident, a former cyclist, with a bike retrofitted to accommodate him. Another fulfilled dream involved converting an assembly room into a mechanic shop, including details like grease-stained rags.
“Seeing dreams fulfilled is always an emotional experience,” Holderman said.
One day, after returning to the Veterans Home from lunch, Phillips was greeted by a crowd of staff and others.
“I was so shocked, I had no response whatsoever,” she said. “I was listening to what they were saying because I didn’t want to miss anything, but it didn’t really feel like something that could be happening to me.”
Phillips learned that she would be accompanied by her own personal nurse and Holderman to Arlington, where she would visit the Women in Military Service for America Memorial and Washington, D.C.
“Every time I turned around there was a surprise,” Phillips said of the trip.
Holderman arranged a nighttime tour of the monuments in Washington, D.C. on the first night, an experience Phillips describes as “incredible.”
“They let us get off the bus at the (National Mall) and we walked up to the Lincoln Memorial,” Phillips said. “I couldn’t make it up the steps, but it was all lit up and it was so beautiful.”
As memorable as that experience was, Phillips had some emotional moments at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which includes the names of over 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died during the conflict. The two-acre memorial contains the names of 17 young men who graduated from her high school.
“A lot of people didn’t want that wall built,” she said. “There was a lot of dissension surrounding that.”
The following morning, Phillips, Holderman and nurse Brandy Sigman arrived at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. Their tour was led by a U.S. Navy veteran.
“She was a communications officer on the USS Nimitz,” Phillips said. “She was the first female allowed to serve on the Nimitz.”
Holderman was struck by the mutual respect and admiration Phillips and the tour guide demonstrated for one another.
“We’d both been through it,” Phillips said. “We interacted differently, there was a real camaraderie there.”
The memorial contains exhibits honoring women who served in every war involving the U.S.
“What really stood out to me was that each section had a uniform,” she said. “It really hit me that each one of those uniforms were worn by a woman who served her country.”
Another feature of the memorial stood out to Phillips.
“The entire ceiling is made of glass,” she said. “It can be broken.”
A display containing letters written by soldiers in the Vietnam War prompted Phillips to recall her days in the hospital in Okinawa as wounded soldiers sought her help corresponding with family members back home.
“I cried,” she said holding back tears. “The letters did it.”
Visiting the memorial was “like a dream come true,” Phillips continued.
“I didn’t think I’d ever stand in that building,” she said. “It was the greatest gift they could’ve given me.”
But the visit to the memorial wasn’t the end of the trip. The office of Senator Richard Burr arranged a tour of the U.S. Capitol, where she was presented with an American flag flown over the building in her honor.
“It was specifically flown for Patsy,” Holderman said of the flag, which was raised at the building as part of the Capitol Flag Program. “That was a wonderful moment.”
Staffers from Burr’s office presented Phillips with the flag in the shadow of the plaster model of the Statue of Freedom that stands in the visitor center in the Capitol.
“It was overwhelming, really,” she said. “I cried because I was standing there facing the rotunda where the bodies of people like John F. Kennedy and Billy Graham were displayed before they were interred.”
Mark Meadows, the U.S. Representative for the 11th congressional district of N.C., arranged for Phillips and her travel companions to take a self-guided tour of the White House.
She returned to Black Mountain on Feb. 26, and the Veterans Home will hold a presentation about her trip at 2 p.m. on Thursday, March 21.
“I started here seven years ago,” Holderman said. “I owe the freedoms that I have to our veterans and I feel very grateful to be able to be here and pay tribute to them each and every day.”
Every day Phillips feels that appreciation from the staff at the home, she said.
“Veterans are an elite group, I believe, and the respect I get here for having served my country is something I’ve always felt was missing in my life,” Phillips said. “Every day I’m told ‘thank you for your service.’”
She is incredibly grateful to PruittHealth and Second Wind Dreams for fulfilling her dream.
“To me, getting the recognition that we deserved feels like an accomplishment,” Phillips said. “But to so many other people it means so many other different things, and that is what a memorial is supposed to be.”