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‘It was an honor to serve’

Retired Navy nurse Lt. Elizabeth “Liz” Gay and the beautiful red, white and blue quilt that she made, which hangs over her kitchen table. She titled it, “Those Who Serve.” It has on it her name and the names of all of her family members who proudly served their country.

Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

There are many ways to serve one’s country in the armed services. 

One way is to care for the wounded when they return stateside.

That is how our own Lt. Liz Gay performed her service during the Viet Nam War.

Gay was born in Rhode Island, but for the past 44 years, she has made her home here in Pocahontas County.

For those of you who do not know her, let me tell you her story.

She was born and raised in Rhode Island and received her Registered Nursing degree through a four-year nursing program at Boston University.

School was expensive, and it was difficult to both work and go to school.

So, when Uncle Sam advertised for nursing students to sign up under the auspices of the National Student Defense Act, Gay answered the call.

A young Lt. Liz Gay, photographed on duty at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

Maybe military service was in her blood.

Her father was also in the military. He served in the Navy in World War II. 

She got a full scholarship for the last year of nursing school in exchange for serving two years active service and six years inactive service in the Navy. 

Gay graduated with her RN degree, went to officers’ candidate school and entered the Navy as an Ensign – the equivalent of a Second Lieutenant.

She wanted to work on a hospital ship, or be sent to DaNang. 

Instead, she was stationed in Maryland, at the National Naval Medical Center in the Bethesda Naval Hospital, which is now known as Walter Reed Medical Center.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years!” Gay said. 

The majority of patients were returning servicemen from the Viet Nam War.

“All of my patients were officers,” she remembers. “And most were Marines, who had been injured in Viet Nam.

“They’d suffered serious injuries and were brought to our hospital for advanced care.”

Most of her work was in the cardiac unit, but she also worked with neurology, urology, orthopedics and VIP patients – who were congress- men, senators and generals.

We worked one RN and two or three corpsmen to a floor. 

The corpsmen were enlisted men, getting experience before they received their orders to go to Viet Nam. 

“The corpsmen were courteous and good to work with,” Gay remembers. 

“Although there was no fraternizing allowed with the enlisted men, when the corpsmen got their orders to go to Viet Nam, the nurses would always get together and have a picnic for them.”  

Gay said that the men who were patients in that hospital were very tough – no matter their condition. 

“They were good patients. They never complained and rarely showed pain – they were very brave and all of them were hard nuts to crack.”

One of those tough soldiers was her future husband, Bill Gay.

Bill, who lived in Marlinton, was a First Lieutenant in the Marines when he was injured in Viet Nam.

He’d just undergone his fifth surgery when he and Liz met in the hospital. 

He’d been sent to the Navy hospital for advanced care. 

Bill and Liz married in 1971 and were inseparable partners for 43 years.

When they were able, they moved to Marlinton, where Bill’s family – one of the founding families of the area – went back generations.

They settled in on 10th Avenue in 1973, and Bill worked as an insurance agent for State Farm insurance.

Liz worked as a nurse at Pocahontas Memorial Hospital when it was located on Main Street in downtown Marlinton.

The couple eventually moved into their beautiful home in Edray in 1983 on property across from Bill’s home place.

Although he had recovered well from his injuries, Bill never had use of his left hand or full range of motion with his left arm.

“But he never, ever considered himself disabled, and, despite his many health concerns, really, he wasn’t [disabled],” Liz said.

“There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. Even our kids hardly ever noticed anything until some other kids would ask questions about their dad’s hand.”

The couple lived a happy life, raising their family and taking an active role in Pocahontas County civic affairs.

Bill died in 2014, leaving Liz and their three grown children. 

Their oldest, Todd, is a major in the Marine Corps. 

After three deployments – Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, working as a member of a Rapid Response Team – Todd is now working in cyber security at the Pentagon.

Daughter Kathryn lives in North Carolina, and is a rehab specialist working with autistic patients. 

Kathryn’s son, Elijah, is now six years old.

“And he’s the apple of my eye,” Liz said of her grandson.

The Gay’s youngest son, Matthew, lives in Woodland Hills, California, and works at the Getty Villa, making mounts for museum artifacts. 

Still serving her country in various ways, Gay has completed 10 stories about local veterans for the Veterans Oral History Project for the Library of Congress.

“I did about ten interviews with local vets,” she explained. “I would do all the paperwork, get the interview and then submit one copy of the interview to the Library of Congress and one to the veteran whom I had interviewed.

“There is also a copy of each interview in the Heritage Room at the McClintic Library.”

But, a lot of veterans don’t want to talk much about their service. 

“It’s fairly difficult to get veterans to talk about their service,” Gay said, “especially the highly decorated ones.
“They are really humble. 

“They don’t consider themselves heroes. They did it for their buddies.”

Gay enjoys quilting, and is a member of an informal group of five or six local ladies who call themselves “the Wilderness Quilters.” They get together twice a year for a weekend of socializing and quilting. 

And she loves living her in her adopted home.

“I love the people of Pocahontas County – they are so good to each other!” she said with a smile.

“Having to go to Elkins or Salem to the VA Hospital was a terrible hardship for our veterans and their caregivers. 

“I’m proud of how many people here worked so hard and lobbied for years to get that VA clinic in Lewisburg.” 

Gay has committed to serving her country and her fellow veterans in yet another way.

She joined the Pocahontas County Honor Corps.

“I joined the Honor Corps because I was so touched by the way they served at Bill’s funeral,” she said.

“We had military rites with Marines from Roanoke and the Honor Corps.

“It was such a moving ceremony that they did for us. I wanted to be part of offering that service to other military families.”

Gay said the Honor Corps members comfort the family, offer a 21-gun salute and play Taps at the final resting place of servicemen and women.

“If no military member on active service can be present, then we fold the flag and present it to the family,” she added.

“We visit veterans at the nursing home and this week, since it’s coming up on Veterans Day, we visit all the schools.

“Of course, I’ll be spending Veterans Day with the Honor Corps, and I’ll be at the Veterans’ luncheon at the opera house.”
Military men and women are never far from her mind.

“Having been a Navy nurse, the daughter of a serviceman, a wife of a Marine who was wounded in combat, and the mother of a deployed Marine, I think about soldiers every day,” she said.

“Until recently, I didn’t really think of myself as a veteran. I just thought I’d done my part.

“But, of course, I was pleased to serve.

“Whenever anyone says, thanks for your service to me, I always say, ‘It was an honor to serve.’

“Because it really was.”

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