Marsha Four is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts as a woman veteran.
In looking back, it is much easier now to realize that my decision to enter the military changed my life forever. As a woman Veteran who served her country as an Army nurse in Vietnam (1969), I saw the best and the worse of humanity. The sixties and seventies were hard times; times of great unrest, times of civil upheavals, times of change, times of questioning...questioning who we were, what we stood for, and what we would accept. Brought to this unrest was the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, and the list goes on. It was in this atmosphere that I reentered the “real world” from the world of war. This period in the history of our country and my military service changed me forever. It was in this time that I became the woman that I am today.
Upon my immediate return I extricated myself from all the emotional pain of war by taking a five month hiatus from life. I hit the road in a VW van with a man I met in Vietnam and later married. I recognize it now as running away; I like to think of it as getting my head together. During the ensuing years, I didn't think of myself as a Veteran. It never entered my mind. Happenstance brought me to meet another Vietnam nurse, Grace. It was she who brought me into the world of “Veteran,” and who helped me to embrace it with pride.
Until then, I didn't realize I had been searching all those years for an unknown reason for my life, but it was then that I opened myself and discovered who I was: I was now a member of an elite group of men and women, ones with whom I would stand forever. I educated myself in all that being a Veteran meant, which led me to discover that, while we all earned benefits, they were not always equal or equitable. Many Veterans were homeless, without jobs, seeking better health care. I began to align myself with many other women Veterans of my era who were fighting the good fight and pushing the envelope on the inequality of our VA benefits; women like Lynda, Lily, Mary, Sara, Joan and Linda. And so it began for me.
All of this led me to the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), initially joining a local chapter and eventually moving to its national office, where I was a part of a team working to ensure that the voices of Veterans were heard. I was able to contribute, write, and deliver Congressional testimony, receive a VA Secretarial appointment to the Advisory Committee on Women Veterans, and embrace the unacceptable situation of Veterans living on the streets and in shelters. If I was able to make a change then, it was my responsibility to do so. This lead me to the organization of a homeless Veterans initiative called Stand Down. Its creation loomed as an insurmountable task: to organize the local VA, the City of Philadelphia and its social service agencies in an effort to coordinate their services over a three day week end in a military camp setting. But it happened and it continues. I believe this effort played a major role in strengthening the foundation of the highly integrated system that now exists for homeless Veterans in Philadelphia today.
At this point I left hospital nursing to perform nursing on a different plain with The Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service & Education Center, a non-profit agency. I remained with the agency until my recent retirement as its Executive Director, after seventeen years of working with Veterans who sought assistance; some for direction, some for care, some for dignity, some for hope. There have been many challenges and many accomplishments along the way, but I am grateful for every day of the experience. These past twenty-six years of my life have been an extraordinary journey and a blessed gift to me, never to have been discovered if not for that defining oath I made forty-five years ago in an Army recruiting office in Indianapolis.
I intend to continue my advocacy because as they say, “I'm not dead yet.”
Marsha Four sits on the National Board of Directors of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), and is the Chair of its National Women Veterans Committee