Carrie Kleeh of Wheeling felt the call of duty to her country when she was a teenager, and didn't hesitate upon high school graduation to enlist in the U.S. Army. Her commitment was so much a part of her that, when she became pregnant while serving, she left the Army and returned to home to Virginia but joined the Virginia National Guard as soon as she could.
After moving to Ohio, the single mother joined the Ohio National Guard, and she was called up on Dec. 23, 2003, to go to Iraq. On Christmas day, she left her 6-year-old daughter with relatives in Virginia before reporting for duty on Dec. 27 in Ohio.
Rarely does Kleeh tell her story without shedding tears. Friday was not one of those days, as she talked to the women and men gathered at the Wheeling Vet Center for the first Women Veterans Recognition Symposium and Ceremony. Kleeh conceived and organized the event through her position as a disabled veterans outreach specialist with WorkForce West Virginia.
The event included a presentation about women veterans' health benefits by Veterans Affairs representatives from Wheeling and Pittsburgh and information displays about the VA and WorkForce. About 20 veterans and supporters attended.
In addition to Kleeh, two female veterans talked about their service experiences. Kleeh then gave special recognition to honored guest Annabell Hayward of Beech Bottom, a 91-year-old veteran of World War II who served as a captain in the Women's Army Nurse Corps. She landed at Omaha Beach and served in the Battle of the Bulge and other conflicts in the European theater as a nurse with an evacuation unit, caring for soldiers with chest and abdomen wounds.
"She changed my opinion on heroes," Kleeh said, noting until she met Hayward, she didn't believe they existed.
At the end of the ceremony, Kleeh told the story that on Mother's Day, 2004, as she waited in line to "armor up" her Humvee in Iraq (she served as a truck driver and then a machine gunner), she opened a card from her mother-in-law that included a folded picture of a painting that was published in Reader's Digest. It was called "Over There" by artist C.F. Payne, and it depicted a mother crouching in combat gear reading a Mother's Day card, her hand touching her mouth in an attempt, perhaps, to keep her lips from trembling.
Upon her return from the war in 2005, Kleeh searched out a larger version of that picture and had it framed. But, she told the audience Friday, she couldn't find the right place in her house to hang it.
"This is the right place," she said, as she presented the painting to Jeremy Harrison of the Wheeling Vet Center, a licensed social worker and Iraq War veteran.
"This will definitely be hanging up by the end of the day," Harrison said as he accepted it. He added he felt honored to be in a room with the women veterans. He was in a unit that led the seige to Baghdad, he said, and his unit included 20 women. Harrison also spoke about Kleeh's tireless efforts to help any veteran and connect them to the services of the Vet Center.
Also as part of her presentation, Kleeh related the bittersweet emotions of returning home from the war: "They don't teach you how to come back." Health and mental health issues make it very difficult for veterans to assimilate into society. But Kleeh has said previously, as difficult as it was to be away and to serve in the war, she always felt it was something she had to do.
To express this point Friday, Kleeh read this quote from Beatrice Hood Stroup, a major in the Women's Army Corps in World War II: "It isn't just my brother's country, or my husband's country, it's my country as well. And so the war wasn't just their war, it was my war, and I needed to serve in it."
To inquire about veterans' services, call the Wheeling Vet Center, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 304-232-0587 or stop by the center, 1058 Bethlehem Blvd., Bethlehem Village Plaza, Wheeling.