America mourns the passing of former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday morning at her home in Bel Air, in Los Angeles, at the age of 94.
Nancy outlived her husband, our 40th president, by nearly 12 years. In one way, she may have felt that she outlived him by closer to 20 years, given his loss of memory with the onset of Alzheimer’s in the early 1990s. She has lived quietly in the last few years, out of the public eye, only occasionally making appearances for special events at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley.
Much will be written and said about her in the next week, and all the good will be deserved. She will be best remembered, and justly so, as Ronald Reagan’s closest partner and dearest friend. We will hear delightful reminiscences of her from many people; for those of us who were young and full of beans during the Reagan presidency, the memories will be poignant, and the sense of an era ending strong.
But I want to focus on just one aspect of her long tour in public life. It may not get as much attention as others. She never courted recognition or fame for it. But for those who served in a particular period of U.S. military history, she is indelibly associated with it.
The aspect is her work with veterans and their families, especially the veterans who returned from Vietnam in the harshly politicized 1970s – and above all, the POWs who began coming home in February 1973, arriving on military flights to California, where Reagan was the governor at the time.
I’m not aware of having known any of those vets personally, after I entered the Navy in 1983. But I did know shipmates who had known some of them. One chief warrant officer teared up at the mention of Nancy Reagan, because he knew what her quiet, unheralded support had meant to veterans and wives he had served with in the Vietnam years. “She cared when it seemed sometimes like nobody else did,” he said.
Certainly, it was in Ronald Reagan’s nature to care too. But Michael Deaver, long-time Reagan advisor, made it clear in his 2004 memoir of Nancy that it was her heart for the Vietnam vets that impelled the special efforts the Reagans made on their behalf.
I can’t do better than to quote from Deaver’s Nancy: A Memoir of My Years with Nancy Reagan (New York: HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2004), starting on page 65. Deaver has been describing Nancy’s causes as First Lady of California.
On Fridays, Nancy began flying early to Los Angeles, so she could head directly to a veterans’ hospital in west L.A. She’d literally sit for hours with the young soldiers, their wounds fresh, reading to them, listening to what they had to say, or just holding their hands. Often, she would leave with a promise to call a wife or sweetheart, a task she faithfully performed as soon as she could. …
Her work with the vets drew some rare positive media attention, and she was asked to write a weekly question-and-answer newspaper column about military families. Nancy agreed with one stipulation: that her payment be sent to the National League of Families of American Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. She was amazed by the wives who formed the POW/MIA group – at their toughness even when they had no way of knowing if their husbands were dead or alive.
Nancy made sure that she and Reagan were on hand when one of the first planeloads of released POWs landed in California. As they waited on the tarmac to greet the returning men, Nancy held Reagan’s hand tightly. She didn’t know what to expect. She’d heard so many stories from her wounded vets about the horrors of this war, but she could only imagine the hell these men had suffered in POW camps. Jeremiah Denton, who had spent nearly eight years in prison and would later go on to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama, was the first man off the plane. As she watched him and the others set foot once again on American soil, Nancy was struck by their strength, the crispness of their salute, the pride in their eyes.
“We’ve got to do something more,” she told Reagan.
He agreed, and they came up with a plan to host a series of intimate dinners at the Reagan homes in Los Angeles and Sacramento. … She insisted the men bring whomever they wanted: wives, mothers, dads, kids. It was their evening.
The first dinner in Sacramento was unforgettable. The men were fresh off the plane; their memories, still raw. … Nancy had enlisted other families in the neighborhood to welcome the POWs to the Reagan home. As the soldiers arrived, families stood two to three deep along the Reagans’ walkway, cheering the men on. … The tears were just starting to dry when the harrowing tales began. The prisoners told us of the communications system they used to transmit messages between holding cells, essentially a Morse code. Imagine our shock when we saw a pair of POWs embrace in the Reagan living room. They were the best of friends – thanks to the code they developed – but they had never seen each other face-to-face. As soon as they heard each other’s name mentioned, they put down their drinks and fell into each other’s arms. The smile on the faces of Ronald and Nancy Reagan revealed a deeper satisfaction than words could ever describe. Both Reagans wore bracelets bearing the names of men missing in action or known to be in a prison camp. One of those names belonged to a navy aviator named John McCain. To this day, the senior senator from Arizona remains one of Nancy’s closest friends.
One dinner in particular is burned into my mind. A young, one-stripe Marine escorted his father who had been held captive for years in a tin hut, forced to remain bent over at the waist. He had lost the ability – or desire – to talk and hadn’t uttered a sound since coming home. Gaunt and ashen, he looked confused as his son introduced him to Governor Reagan and Nancy. Some time later, as we all sat at round tables under a large white tent in the backyard, the conversations suddenly ground to a halt when the two hundred guests and returned prisoners realized that this heretofore mute POW was standing and singing “God Bless America.” I’ve never seen such a display of emotion as we all rose to join him in song.
At a time when too many returning vets were encountering hostility or dismissal, Nancy made sure that she and Ronald Reagan were saying the simple, precious words: “Welcome home.”
We thus may watch with new eyes, as President Reagan honors the Unknown Soldier from Vietnam at the entombment ceremony in May of 1984.* We know he is carrying Nancy’s standard, and a special heart for Vietnam vets, as he speaks of reconciliation, healing, and honor.
I haven’t been able to find the source of something I have long remembered as said about Nancy: “When Nancy Reagan loves you, you know it.” Age teaches us how much more important this is than just about everything else. And there’s a generation of vets who would readily say of Nancy: They knew.
* The Unknown Soldier was identified through DNA in 1998 as First Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie (USAF) of St. Louis, Missouri. He was shot down near An Loc on 11 May 1972, and his remains were eventually recovered by the South Vietnamese army. Once identified, Blassie was buried at Jefferson National Cemetery in 1998.