Virginia Martenson realizes the importance of supporting and memorializing public servants. After all, the 97-year-old has spent her entire life surrounded by family members who either worked in nursing or joined the military. Her mother, Clara Elizabeth Callahan, did both.
Callahan enlisted as a nurse in the Army, under the auspices of the Red Cross, to serve during World War I. As a survivor of the 1918 flu herself, she was asked to treat GIs who fell ill during the pandemic at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Two decades later, at the start of World War II, she stepped up to work at local hospitals that were short-staffed because younger nurses had left to treat soldiers injured on the battlefield.
During her retirement, Martenson’s mother continued to take care of her peers while living in her retirement community.
“When they found out that mother was a registered RN, if anybody went to the emergency room or anything, my mother went with them,” Martenson says. “She used her nursing expertise even when we were very young; people didn't go to the doctors. I'm talking about 80 years ago, when you were from a small town.”
Callahan was 99 years old when she passed away in 1995.
A wish granted
Ever since the Military Women's Memorial opened to the public in 1997, Martenson longed to visit it to honor the millions of women who served, including her mother. In hopes of achieving this goal, she wrote to the AARP-affiliated Wish of a Lifetime Foundation, and her dream trip became a reality.
The charity flew Martenson — accompanied by her granddaughter, Deanna Bonn, 47, an Army veteran — from her home in Florida to Washington, D.C. The two hadn’t seen each other in almost two years due to COVID-19 restrictions, making the moment even more special. The pair toured the Military Women’s Memorial, the National Museum of the United States Army and the national monuments around Washington.
At the Military Women’s Memorial, located at Arlington National Cemetery, they were greeted by staff who had prepared a special presentation that included a flag-raising ceremony in honor of Martenson’s mother.
“They had enlarged a picture and a little article about my mother's service that they had up high on the wall as I walked down," Martenson says. "That I will never forget, looking up and seeing my little mother. It was wonderful for them to do that. They also presented me with a picture, which I will have framed with the [ceremony’s] flag, which I will keep forever.”
Martenson’s granddaughter says it was difficult to put into words what the experience meant to her.
“The Women's Memorial was just awe-inspiring. To see not only that my great-grandmother’s story was there, but when my grandmother saw that, she took a breath and was so tickled and delighted,” Bonn says. “Then to know that other people are going to learn her story, too, I know she was really appreciative.”
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.