The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
October/November 2004
FEATURE
 
 

Jennie Le Fevre
 

BY JIM BELSHAW

Jennie Le Fevre, 73, died September 7. Described as a "grand, remarkable woman" by one of the many veterans who mourned her passing, she was the widow of a Vietnam veteran who died of Agent Orange-related cancer. Following her husband's death, she devoted her life to veterans and their families and relentlessly championed those whose lives had been shattered by diseases connected to Agent Orange and other chemicals used in the Vietnam War.

She was the creator of The Quilts of Tears, a memorial tribute that honors victims of Agent Orange-related diseases. The project, begun in 1998 under the auspices of the Agent Orange Victims and Widows Support Network, came into being with Jennie Le Fevre's original quilt, made to honor her husband, Jerry, a Jolly Green Giant pilot. Family members of other veterans suffering from diseases connected to the Vietnam-era herbicide were encouraged to submit quilt blocks in honor of their loved ones. The blocks then were sewn into quilts that were displayed at various veterans' functions.

The quilt panels feature photos and memorabilia of veterans who fell victim to the long-term effects of Agent Orange and other herbicides used in Vietnam. The quilts were displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day 1989.

Where the quilts went, Jennie Le Fevre went, greeting each veteran she met with a hug and a kiss that soon became familiar to everyone who met her.

"You always knew Jennie was going to hug you and kiss you," said Ruth Coder Fitzgerald, the president of the Vietnam War In Memory Memorial Plaque Project. "One of the things we always recommended when I heard from a widow or relative was that they get in touch with Jennie. It helped a lot. These people were in pain and a quilt square in their memory really helped."

VVA President Tom Corey, calling her a "tenacious advocate for those still suffering the effects of the Vietnam War," said Jennifer Le Fevre touched countless lives.

"When you look at what this lady has done over the years, it's remarkable to think of the sacrifices she made trying to make people aware of the killer that's out there, the killer that took her husband's life," Corey said. "She had a tremendous impact on Vietnam veterans and her families. I can't tell you the number of times she's set up her display and been there for veterans."

Invariably, those who knew her speak of her energy. They describe a physically small woman, "tiny" in the words of one veteran, whose presence filled every room she walked into.

"She was an extraordinarily dynamic woman," VVA Public Affairs Committee chair Jim Doyle said. "She had so much energy packed into such a small frame. Some people walk into a room and create a vacuum. Jennie energized everyone in the room. Her quilt gave people a chance to put a face and name together and to reflect on it so a loved one wasn't just some abstraction who died from Agent Orange cancer. These were real people with real families, and Jennie made it her life mission to make the world aware."

Gary Chenett, national director of The Order of the Silver Rose, said he often found Jennie throwing open her house and heart to veterans. Chenett said it was impossible for veterans not to talk to her. Something about her insisted that they open themselves to her.

"She would just break guys down and get them to open up," Chenett said. "These were guys who hadn't thought about the war or about friends they lost. There were times when I saw her conversations go on for an hour with vets who were hurting badly. She was an honest, open, sweet person."

One such veteran was Henry Snyder. Now living in Florida, he came home from Vietnam in 1969, not wanting anything to do with the government, the VA, or any other person or organization connected to his experience in the Vietnam War. Snyder said it took the five years of "browbeating" by a friend over the Internet before he would apply to the VA for Agent Orange-related disability benefits. He said he just wasn't "talkative" about anything.

Then he met Jennie Le Fevre, and she did nothing less than "change my life," Snyder said.

He and his wife, Sheila, saw a newspaper story in 2000 about a woman with a quilt. They went to see it out of curiosity. Nothing has been the same for him since.

"On the way home that evening, he was crying," Sheila said. "After all these years, it was the first time I saw Henry say anything about Vietnam."

Jennie Le Fevre spoke to him, and he could not stop himself from speaking to her.

"Here was this little gray-haired lady all full of energy, hugging veterans and talking to every one who came through," he said. "She was sitting all by herself, nobody to help her, and she talked to people who came through as if they were her own children."

She asked Henry and Sheila Snyder to meet her at another Florida display. They have been working with her ever since and intend to carry on her work. "We worked together and just fit like pieces," Sheila said. "We didn't plan anything. The first time we worked a display together it all kind of came naturally, and me being the wife of a Vietnam veteran, I could see that it was helping him stay healthy. It was helping other veterans, too."

They will travel twice more in 2004 to complete the scheduled quilt displays and continue into the next year. Henry's employer has agreed to a flexible work schedule that allows him to leave on the quilt trips.

"When she would introduce us to people she knew or people who would interview us, she said we were her 'angels in training,' " Sheila Snyder said. "I take it now as if she knew somebody had to carry on with her quilts if anything happened to her."

Jennie Le Fevre was buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to her husband.

"The lady was small and so were her shoes," Henry Snyder said. "I hope we can fill them."

   

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