Long, Dark Wall: Vietnam Memorial Duty Stirred Emotions
A tall, slender woman caught my eye. She was sobbing, and I wanted to help.
The temperature was soaring, even more uncomfortable because of the high humidity, assuring no relief. She wore a simple, white dress that contrasted with her ebony skin. She struck me with a simple elegance that I found compelling.
I silently watched for a few moments, wondering what had triggered her grief. The tears now came down in a torrent, faster than she could wipe them away. For her, emotional scars had been opened, and the pain grew deeper on her young face.
This chance meeting took place in Washington, D.C. From time to time, I find myself thinking back to that summer morning and those poignant moments with her. The place of our meeting, a black granite structure, wasn't imposing. At best, it was a dozen feet tall at its highest point.
From first daylight into the night, a constant stream of children, women, and men file by this structure, pausing to place a bouquet of flowers, a Bible, a flag, a photo, or a piece of memorabilia at its base.
I witnessed this parade of humanity for four-hour stints on at least 100 days. Visitors came in ill-fitting military uniforms. Still others wore dark suits, blue jeans, dresses or shorts; there was no pattern. They poured in by foot, car, taxi, or bus along busy Constitution Avenue.
After 100 days there, I understood less about the place than I had when I began.
There is no other place in Washington quite like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There may be nothing to match it in the world. "The Wall," as it is known, honors the 58,241 men and eight women who died 13,000 miles from U.S. shores in a difficult war. It also acknowledges the sacrifice of the 2.5 million men and women who served in Vietnam -- including, I suppose, myself.
The names carved into the black granite are anything but a cross-section of our country. I have no illusions about this being a democratic war borne equally by the whole of this nation. There are only eight sons of Harvard who perished in Vietnam. Not a single congressman or senator sacrificed a son to the war effort. You won't find many names from the swanky neighborhoods of Manhattan, Carmel or Georgetown.
Those memorialized were Christian, Catholic, and Jew, with few others thrown in. The average age of a soldier or sailor in Vietnam was 19, a full seven years younger than World War II veterans. The kids who fought the war in Vietnam had never voted, owned a car, or had a real girl friend, and many died for their efforts.
For two years, I spent Saturday mornings as a National Park Service volunteer. I supported, in whatever way I could, the visitors who journeyed into my midst. I froze when it snowed and boiled when the temperature climbed to 100 degrees with unbearable humidity. I was there because they came.
Undertones of Guilt
The smell of fresh spring flowers uplifted me in the spring -- pleasant, to be sure. Birds chirped and squirrels frolicked, chasing acorns. The nearby cherry blossoms were in bloom. Yet there was no escaping the harsh reality I faced.
Was I there out of guilt? I had never done enough in the war. In my own way, I still must come to grips with my inadequacy. How many names are on that wall because of my failure? I had to connect my feelings, long buried, with the souls of those Marines who died on the field of battle. In war, you don't get to say goodbye. A buddy can save your life one minute, then be gone the next.
Could I pay the tribute that was due? This was hallowed duty. On most Saturday mornings, I awoke hoping that this would be the time when I would finally ignore my reluctant obligation. When so tempted, I folded my hands in prayer. God gave me the courage to go.
Words far more magical than my own have been offered to measure the loss that I felt. Maj. Michael Davis O'Donnell wrote:
If you are able, save for them a place inside of you and save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go.
Be not ashamed to say you loved them, though you may or may not have always. Take what they have taught you with their dying and keep it with your own.
And in that time when men decide and feel safe to call the war insane, take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind."
The major was killed in action in 1970.
I was there to put a face on the war for others, to connect names with grandparents, fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers or those friends who chose to come. War, if anything, was a family affair, as the pilgrimages to "The Wall" so aptly illustrated. Death's sting was immeasurable. When a name was found on the edifice, groups often would lock hands in prayer as tears poured down their cheeks.
The Wall also taught me that family is crucial to men and their willingness to go to war. Families sustained the spirit of young boys sent into the swamps and jungles of Vietnam. A family "footprint" was there to see. When they learned to shoot, it was their fathers who taught them. When it came to the art of love, it was mothers who did the teaching. Soldiers are born in boot camp, but they are spawned before they leave home. Boot camp awakens a soul, and a young man evolves from a kid into a warrior.
Each Saturday I returned to my tiny row house, on Capitol Hill, on the edge of nervous collapse. I would bow my head in prayer and thank the Lord for the opportunity to help the searching souls that I had, in whatever way, assisted that day.
'That Was My Daddy'
The young woman in the white dress was beautiful, with long and graceful fingers. She possessed a sheepish grin.
It was somewhat unusual to see a single female at this memorial. Together, we looked for the name she wanted. As we searched, she told me that she was from Florence, Ala., and had taken the Greyhound bus to see this precious ground. When we finally found the name, tears came once again from her large brown eyes.
"That was my daddy," she said. "My mother used to tell me about my daddy and what a man he was. They would sit on the porch and sing 'Amazing Grace.'"
Her parents had met in church. It was love at first site.
The tears poured. "My grandfather was in the Army in World War II. He had fought in North Africa and then in Italy. He didn't say too much about it, but you knew that it had been hard for him. There was a nasty scar on his cheek."
I could tell from the date that her father fell that he had been killed during the Tet offensive, an assault where more than 100,000 communist troops assaulted American bases in every city in South Vietnam, trying to overwhelm our positions. The communists failed in that offensive because of men like her daddy, men who rose up and eventually beat back a determined enemy.
Perhaps I sensed her pain, just a bit.
Some veterans despise The Wall, feeling that it further disgraces our collective service. They see the final plan, by a Yale architecture student, as further humiliation for this painful war. Still other vets believe that The Wall is a bulwark of miracles and hope. Both groups are my "brothers," and I respect what each has chosen to believe.
My days as a National Park Service volunteer were never the same. They trained me and gave me a cap and badge that identified me to the public. I found that these were useful personal disguises to hide behind. In a matter of a few minutes on the first day, I chose to be there as something other than a Vietnam veteran. If someone asked, I would ignore the question. Graciously, no one pushed this envelope with me.
Behind each of those names is a story -- some heroic, some not. The narrative behind each name told not only about a person but about their family, community, and, yes, how they contributed to our nation. I heard some of these stories. There was so much that could be said about the children searching for an uncle, father, or family friend. The innocent minds of children left this sacred ground unpolluted, giving it a grace that inspired me.
The visit with the woman in the white dress had affected me. She longed to find the name of a father she largely knew through photos and from the memory of others. That day, she touched her father's name and gracefully rubbed each letter, somehow connecting with a spirit that gave her life new meaning. As she gently stroked the granite's surface, she was linking with a father that she barely knew. I am quite certain that her father is now one of God's guardian angels, and that he looked down upon his child that day with pride beyond measure.
"There are so many times when I sat on our porch and thought about what my father would have been like," she said. "I would give anything to spend just five minutes with him, just to see his smile." With that, she turned and left. I wanted to cry out to her, to tell her that everything would be all right.
Names Still Being Added
Once there was an elderly woman from Erie, Pa. She and I found the name of her grandson, Tommy, who had died as an Army private first class in 1969. This had been a new widow at the time of Tommy's death. The loss of her only grandchild was devastating. Tommy had been raised by a single mom. After his death, she fell into a depression and killed herself.
I will never forget one morning when a Cub Scout, so perfect in his freshly pressed blue uniform, came clutching his parents' hands as they located their special name. He gathered a small bouquet of flowers surrounding an American flag centerpiece from his mother.
After a few minutes, the boy and his father planted their tribute at the foot of The wall. Then this young child perfectly recited the Pledge of Allegiance. That done, he smartly stepped back one pace and gave a splendid salute. This image stayed with me for days, and I wonder if this little boy, now a young man, is one of our brave soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Each year, a few new names are chiseled into The Wall, adding to the flood of names already there. The names belong to men who died of injuries more than 30 years old or to the bodies of the previously missing but now confirmed dead.
Once I heard a television commentator explain that each name on The Wall represented a true American hero. Really? What could he mean by that? Was he just gracious? Is it heroic to die in one's sleep when a mortar crashes down from above in a direct hit? Is it courageous to be shot between the eyes by a sniper in a mountain valley? What bravery is involved when a young soldier literally sits down on a booby trap that blows him in half?
Another Kind of Service
Many times I have pondered what characteristic might unite each of those names. At a minimum, the unifying quality is that each cared enough about the United States to go to Vietnam. In doing so, they demonstrated a commitment to this nation that we must acknowledge. They went.
To this day, I still do not fully understand why I made those Saturday journeys of grief. Perhaps it is to celebrate a kindred spirit with those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Life goes on, and we move forward.
It was the strength of others at The Wall that kept me sane. When my mind focused on me, I was a mess. Then I found anxiety, guilt, remorse, and grief torturing me. When I thought of others, I am at peace.
Just maybe The Wall was nothing less than a place to serve my country once again. There is no doubt that being there freshened old wounds that may never heal. Never once did I endeavor to look up the names of a man that I knew who lost his life in Vietnam. For me, that would be too hard. I know that I live on because of what these guys did for me, and for you.
Perhaps someday I will take my children or even grandchildren and we will look up a few and offer a prayer in their memory. Perhaps.
Joseph A. Kinney is a decorated Marine veteran living in Pinehurst. This is from his book, "Through the Shadow of Death," which will be published in 2009.
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