November 9th, 2014. 20:30 hrs, Operation Freedom Bird: Washington, D.C.
We had talked on the plane, just like soldiers will do on the way to a war zone. And as we talked, I saw the echo of the young people that these men had been back in Vietnam. On all of their faces now were many of the same expressions that had been on their faces a long time ago when their story was still being written; a mixture of apprehension, resolve, and yes; of hope.
Upon our plane’s arrival in Washington D.C., and then onto a bus; those that had not yet been to the Wall listened to the ones that had made the trip. But even if any of these men had been here before, it was different now; for none of them had gone to war alone, and tonight, they would not go to the Wall alone. In truth, we had all gone to war alongside others, in our own times and places, sure; but we had not gone alone.
As our bus traveled through Washington D.C., I listened to the murmur of voices around me, looked out the window and thought of the debt I owed to this generation of men for the time they had spent training me and other younger soldiers to stay alive in war by passing along their hard-won knowledge to us. I recognized the expressions on their faces from my own time at war; and the subdued conversation quieted even further as the bus continued down Constitution Avenue.
The bus stopped, and in the thoughtful silence, I saw reflected in the bus windows the expressions on the faces of the generation of men that had trained me to survive in war. I remembered a day in 1990, when I was on my first overseas tour, in Korea; I had opened a copy of the Stars and Stripes newspaper, and saw, for the first time, a copy of a painting by Lee Teter.
“Vietnam Reflections” is a picture of an older, graying man leaning against the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and supporting himself with one hand. His head is bowed and he is weeping; he is obviously in a great deal of pain. In the reflection of the Wall, there are images of people looking out of the Wall at him; his comrades and friends that died during the war.
The people looking out of the Wall reach to touch the hand the weeping man used to steady himself. He has aged, but the Reflections are still young as he remembers them then. Can the man leaning against the Wall see them?
Perhaps the man touched the Wall to reach back through the years to find them again, as though touching the names of the Reflections will bring them back to him for just a moment.
In Korea, in 1990, as I looked at the picture of “Vietnam Reflections” for the first time, my heart literally stopped in my chest: When looking at the picture, it is possible to see the expressions on the faces of the Reflections when they look at their friend and the pain he feels as he remembers them. Any of us that ever served would recognize that pain in an instant; whether that person had served in Valley Forge, or on down to the present time. Those whose service is yet to come in a hundred years will recognize it then.
In 2014, my reverie was interrupted as the bus door opened, and these men that had done what they had to do back in Vietnam did not hesitate now. I got off the bus into that misty night with men of the generation that had trained me to stay alive in my own war; they accepted me as one of their own, I stepped into their ranks, and I walked with my fathers-in-arms toward the Wall.
Stone, black stone:
All of the elements are there.
You walk down where the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is cut into the earth. You stand in front of the headstone for the dead of a generation, and you face them on their terms. You don’t look down, then away; you learn much of what it means to be below the ground while without a word being spoken, 58,272 names explain what it means to be gone from life.
What drives people to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, to look for the name of a friend or a loved one, and to finally touch the black stone for themselves?
The Vietnam War was different than many wars before it, and so, too, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is different than many other war memorials. Just the fact that the Wall was even built drove home the stark contrast of a nation seemingly bent on embracing and denying its Vietnam veterans at the same time.
At the Wall there are no statues of men on horseback waving a sword; there are no decommissioned cannons or antiaircraft guns that now have no enemy to point at, and sit rusting quietly while the weapons that replaced them are polished, maintained, and …used.
At the Wall, there are no charts that show how much money was spent, how many planes were manufactured and helicopters were shipped during the Vietnam War. There are no paragraphs on the merits of winning hearts and minds; and no explanations on why that strategy failed, and there are no flow charts of kill ratios vs. ammunition expended, and enemy body counts. There are no attempts to gloss it over by focusing on the strategies and objects instead of the people.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, that rip in the earth and the stark black wall of inscribed names, the glory of war is laid bare as the myth that it really is, and there is no escaping what is lost when a war is fought. In this place, at the Wall, removed only slightly from the seats of power where the decisions are made and funds are appropriated, there is no escaping the sobering truth of the real price of war:
In a place like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, you learn who it cost.
At the Wall can be found some of the Collateral Damage: The mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers of those that died in the Vietnam War; there might be found a wife here, remarried, maybe, but not forgetful. But their numbers diminish every year. After all, the world moves on and time waits for no one. Volunteers walk the black stone; keepers of the history of both the War and of the Wall.
At the Wall can be found an Army nurse: Young then, but older now; far beyond her years. She is there in a fatigue jacket. She touches the cold black stone and the names whisper past her hands like the living people that they were then; the lives that seemed to slip through her fingers so long ago. She can still see the bloodstains on her hands and uniform from her first day in the madness, blood that no amount of scrubbing will remove. When the nurse looks in the mirror and sees the grey in her hair, it seems like so much time has passed; but really, it was only yesterday that she stood at a field hospital and heard the sound of slick helicopters bringing more incoming wounded.
I’m sorry, the nurse’s hunched shoulders and brimming eyes seem to say. I’m sorry we couldn’t save you. Please understand, you were too badly hurt and we did the best we could.
The nurses come to the Wall years after all that they did, all that they gave, and only they know what their service did to them. Only the nurses know what it did to them as they saw so many young lives cut short or changed forever; and perhaps the thought that they saved so many other lives may help the nurses find a measure of the peace that they might have come to the Wall to find.
The Wall at night:
Subdued voices come out of the darkness; overheard are brief snatches of talk not so far removed from the nameless, faceless voices of men heard over the hiss and crackle of a long-ago radio net. Maybe only a few words are gotten out before emotion overpowers speech, and fingertips on black granite speak what there are not words enough to say.
Hey man, do you remember-
I miss you-
But still, these people had found their way here. Even mute, their very presence all said the exact same thing; to each their own names upon the Wall:
I have not forgotten.
Some might think that after all this time, that so much cannot be said in so few words, but to believe that is to not understand the concise, restrained speech of the Vietnam veteran:
After all, these men had first been trained by their country’s military to speak the business of war with short, precisely arranged groups of words; and then upon their return, these men had been trained by much of their country’s non-military to speak of the business of war not at all.
Some had finished speaking, and at last, turned away from the Wall; many of these held the stories behind the names on the black granite as treasures in their hands. Some would see a unit patch on the fatigue jacket, hat or the vest of another Vietnam veteran.
“When were you there, man?” Those, and similar questions murmured out of the dark. At one Wall burdens were shared, other walls came down, and two strangers became brothers.
And there was laughter; yes. In the all-consuming wasteland that war can be, sometimes the only sanity left is laughter; and it was no less so in the life led after. Even in this somber place, there were those that were finally able to celebrate the shared intensity of the abbreviated lives of those they knew whose names are on the Wall.
If you wonder what could bring a veteran or family member to the Vietnam War Memorial, just ask someone who has served or who has lost, and has ever been to a place like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, or Arlington National Cemetery.
Ask them, and maybe they will tell you about the faces of their friends that only they can still see from a time that only they shared; or the nameless, faceless voices of men heard over the hiss and crackle of a long-ago radio net.
Ask them, and maybe they will tell you about standing at a field hospital and hearing the sound of slicks bringing more incoming wounded.
Ask them, and maybe they will tell you what it is that could drive someone to a Wall many years later to look for the name of a friend or a loved one, and to finally touch the black stone for themselves.
So if you are curious about coming home, the life after war, and the years of loss and pain, and only if they really trust you, ask them, and maybe they will tell you what only they know:
There are souls in that Wall.