My Aunt, an American Hero

Jaqueline Louise Richie Rector and Her Life of Service

5/30/20247 min read

My aunt, Jacqueline Rector, was a badass in every sense of the word. To honor my favorite veteran for Memorial Day, I would like to share her story.

Early years of service

When I was young, I was so intimidated by her. She was far from the mothering personality of her (and my dad’s) sisters and my own mother. She was loud and brassy. I don’t think I have ever seen her natural hair color as it was always dyed fire red so that her outside matched her inside.

She joined the service just after high school in 1964, in the middle of the Vietnam War. It was nearly 20 years before women could be on the battlefield, so she began her service in secretarial positions. She was in the Navy very briefly until transferring to the Marines.

She met her first husband in the Marines and tried to settle down when she gave birth to my cousin, her only child, in 1967. This did not last long, as she soon realized that domestication was not for her. She rejoined the battle effort in her own way through advocacy and by promoting mental health awareness.

Advocacy and education

I do not know much of her early career as she was several states away, in Florida, for most of this time. While she was no longer a Marine, she worked closely with them, and they (especially the women) were always her first priority. When she came home on trips, she encouraged my budding feminism and sense of fairness. She would share articles from Ms. Magazine. She bought me a copy of Women Who Run With the Wolves for my birthday when I had just barely started high school.

Her work with the Veterans Administration during this time was incredible. She began running therapy groups for servicemen with PTSD, but wanting to focus on women, she started a group for their wives. She also started a group for female veterans who had only been able to fight in a battle for a few years by this time.

She worked with a team to develop the Vietnam Women’s Memorial and went on local television to promote it. She sent a copy to me so that the history class at my all-girls high school could appreciate the historical significance of women working for the war effort, even if they were not allowed to fight at that time.

As she was leading therapy groups, she was part of a team that developed a program called “Coping Skills for Loving Your Veteran” to help both veterans and their spouses manage PTSD. As women became more active in the military, she developed a national training, “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” that was specific to cultural diversity and women’s issues in the military. She spoke in two separate committees before Congress regarding Veterans Affairs.

The women I knew

In the late 1990s, she decided she had already done so much professionally and that she was tired of paying the high price of missing family, both the day-to-day stuff and the big events (she said missing my wedding was the turning point). She moved back to Louisville. This is when I really got to know her.

My dad liked to joke that I was her “spitting image,” just like her son was his. I had turned into the feminist that she was, despite my own mother’s best efforts to discourage this. I was interested in mental health and have spent years in my own education of mental health and advocacy — but for people with developmental disabilities and mental health concerns, rather than veterans and their families.

She and I were both avid readers (she was the only other reader in my family). We always swapped books and talked about stories, movies, and theater. When she was in Florida, she sent my grandmother and me Dave Barry articles from the Miami Herald, starting my love of South Florida humor. She had the best sense of humor and a laugh that still lives in my mind today. She was one of the worst cooks I knew and an even worse driver.

She tried hard to make up for lost time and never missed anything. She was at the hospital while I was in labor with my son. She even stayed until he was born after one in the morning. She would come “to Josh’s house” (what my family started calling my house after Josh was born) just to hold the baby, even though he spit up on her every. single. time.

She met the family every Sunday at McDonald’s for coffee. She had Christmas every year at her condo on the Sunday after the 25th. She was also at every birthday and every cookout.

Until she wasn’t

We started to notice that she was losing weight. She said that she was no longer hungry and that nothing tasted good. She was getting all of her nutrition through meal replacement shakes. She stopped going to McDonald’s some Sundays, saying she felt too weak. She stopped driving after dark.

Dave Barry had come to our library for a reading and book signing, and I thought it would be fun to take her since she started me reading him and Carl Hiaasen. She met me at the library and left early because she was worried about driving home after dark. She thanked me for asking her and told me he was hilarious. She told me everything he said about South Florida was spot on from when she lived in West Palm Beach.

But she swore she had never heard of him before. This man, whose articles she mailed for years, important as reading was to her, and she could not remember him. I told my dad, and he said he was not surprised. We had noticed physical issues, tremors, weakness, and unsteadiness for a while, but he was also starting to notice some cognitive things.

She kept going to McDonalds when she was able for the next year and a half. She still never missed a family gathering but needed rides from my dad or cousin. She spent Christmas that year (and the year before) at my house rather than trying to have it herself. She had stepped down from the Vietnam Veteran’s Board as she could no longer travel.

Death with dignity

The following year, I called my dad, as I always did, from my husband’s dad’s home to wish him a Happy Thanksgiving. He told me that Jacqui got news back from her neurologist the day before and that she had ALS. I asked if there was anything that could be done.

He told me that they could slow down the progression but that she did not want to do this. She asked her doctor if she would ever feel better than she did at that exact moment, and he said no. So, she said she was done. My cousin and his wife took her back home, and they called hospice.

She decided that she wanted to die at home. She opted not to take any medications other than those to make her comfortable. She opted not to have a feeding tube put in, as she could no longer eat and could barely even tolerate the shakes at this point.

My dad talked to her about it to make sure that she knew what she was doing, as it was getting harder to tell if/when she was coherent. But, about this anyway, she was very lucid. He told her to think about how many books she could still read and how many movies she could see. She said she knew and was done feeling the way she did.

My son, the baby who always spit up on her, was in 8th grade. For years, he and I had a tradition of seeing a matinee movie together on Christmas Eve. We stopped to see her after the movie. My cousin’s wife, Shannon, was there, and she asked me if I thought it was okay for him to go into Jacqui’s bedroom, as she was in extremely bad shape. Josh said he wanted to see her and say goodbye.

I was not prepared for who I saw. She was in her bed and looked relaxed but small. This force of nature that I had known for so long looked deflated. We talked, but I could not understand much of what she said, and she had to repeat herself. We talked about how much like her I had grown to be. She told Josh that she was proud of what a smart young man he was. We all said we loved each other and wished each other a Merry Christmas.

Shannon came in to give her the next dose of Morphine, and we went into the living room so she could sleep. This was the last time I saw her awake.

The next day, we spent Christmas at my house again, but obviously, Jacqui was not there. My dad and stepmom stayed for part of the time and then went to her house to relieve her son and his wife so they could come and eat Christmas dinner since hospice said that she could not be left alone. We all tried to be as merry as we could, but it was difficult.

Another aunt (her sister) came in from Georgia, and we went to Jacqui’s condo on Monday (not our usual Sunday) after Christmas that year. This way, we could visit with my other aunt, all while keeping watch over Jacqui. We sat and talked about family holiday memories. I went into her room to say goodbye, knowing this would probably be my last opportunity. I heard the rattle, the one that everyone describes right before death. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. I said goodbye, and my dad and I walked out to our respective cars.

She died the following morning and was buried near her parents in what is primarily, but not solely, a veteran’s cemetery. Even though she had married and divorced four times over, she does not share a headstone with anyone. I think she would be happy with this, considering that she never remarried, saying that it would be too hard to share the remote. And that was just the remote.

She was given a 21-gun salute, and her flag was folded and presented to my cousin and his wife by a young woman officer. Shannon (who is as strong as her mother-in-law) thanked her and told her how proud Jacqui would have been that a woman presented her flag after she did so much to pave the way for the following generations of female veterans.