My job as a volunteer “visitor guide” was to help people find names on the Moving Wall Vietnam Veterans Memorial. More importantly, I gave visitors a chance to talk. While searching the directory or leading a visitor to the name they sought, I would quietly ask “Was he a friend or a relative?” Over the six days, I began conversations that way with several hundred people. Only a handful gave me a short answer; almost everyone wanted to talk. Each had their own story to tell. For some, the words poured out as if the floodgates of a dam that had been closed for thirty years had just burst open. For others, the words came out slowly and deliberately between long pauses. Sometimes, they choked on the words and they cried. I also cried as I listened, asked more questions, and silently prayed that my words would help to heal, not to hurt.
“I came to see my son’s name.” I heard those and similar words from several parents who came to the Moving Wall. Their son had died in a war that divided our country like no other event since the Civil War. He died in a war that some Americans had blamed on the soldiers who were called to fight it. Some young men had no choice; they were called by the draft. Others, including some 30,000 women, were called differently, by a sense of duty to their family and nation.
Our culture mourns and respects our dead, but in the shadow of that bitter war, the sacrifices of those who died and their families were not allowed to have dignity. Mothers and fathers came to see that their sons had not been forgotten; that their names were remembered on that Wall; that someone else cares.
A frail and elderly mother came to the Moving Wall in a wheelchair. As we looked for her son’s name, she described his interests during high school, and then the agonizing days when she was first told that her son was injured, then missing, then classified as “lost at sea.” She asked me to thank all the other people who helped bring the Moving Wall to Batavia.
“‘Til death do us part” came abruptly to thousands of marriages because of that war. I met two widows of men whose names are on the Wall. One woman showed me a picture of her husband and separate picture of their daughter. A man who never met his daughter. A girl who grew up without a father. I was painfully aware that had some Viet Cong soldiers been slightly better marksmen, my wife and son might have come to the Wall to see my name.
Sisters and brothers came to see a name. One brother so close in age that “People were always calling us by each other’s name, and we both hated it.” A sister said “I was so much younger than him I didn’t realize why my Mom was crying when we said goodbye to him at the airport.”
One brother confided that, although he had not been a war protester, his feelings and his first confrontation with the Wall in Washington were almost identical to those of the brother in the play “The Wall, a Pilgrimage”. He said “It was as if the actor had reached into my soul and exposed every one of my feelings about my brother and the war.”
A group of four people stood near one panel. I offered to make a rubbing of a name. The man pointed to the name Paul D. Urquhart. I asked “Is that Captain Paul Urquhart, the helicopter pilot?” The man nodded and said “He’s my brother.” I explained that I flew with Paul on his first tour in Vietnam and read that he had been shot down during his second tour. Paul’s brother said that he and his family came from Pennsylvania on the anniversary date of Paul’s becoming Missing In Action. I made a rubbing of Paul’s name and added a rubbing of the Army Aviator wings from my hat, a symbol we had both worn so proudly so long ago.
Aunts and uncles also came to see a special name on the Wall. One aunt said “He stayed overnight at our house so much that one neighbor thought he was our son.” An uncle lamented: “I took him hunting. I was the one who taught him to like guns.”
Cousins came to the Wall, and many said “He was like a brother.” One man asked me to look up the name Douglas Smith. I asked back, “Do you mean Doug Smith, a Marine, from North Tonawanda High School?” The man introduced me to his wife, Doug’s cousin. She was pleased to be able to talk about Doug with a classmate who remembered him. I showed her Doug’s name on my own, personal, list.
Veterans came to see the names of their buddies. Most of them were eager to tell me about their friend or how he died. Many remembered the day in great detail; and spoke of what’s called survivor guilt. “He went out on patrol in my place that day.” Or “If I hadn’t been away on R & R (rest and recuperation), he wouldn’t be dead.” Others were bothered that they couldn’t remember much about their friend because they had tried to “block it out” for so many years. Another man said “I lost a few good friends while I was there (Vietnam), but I don’t want to find just their names, because I feel the same about all 58,000 of these names.”
“Tree-line vets” are men or women who have finally been able to go to a Moving Wall location, but are terrified of coming close enough to actually see some names that have been haunting them so many years. One such veteran stood for a long time some fifty feet from the Wall. My brothers Vic and Chris talked with him. After a while he and Vic were able to laugh about some of their common Marine Corps experiences and then they were finally able to approach, see, and touch, those names together.
Many people came to the Wall in the privacy or serenity of darkness. Our security men reported that there were only a few minutes each night that the Wall had no callers at all. One visitor spent several hours in the middle of the night standing in front of a certain panel. Whenever anyone came close, he would move away. When alone again, he would move back to that panel to continue his silent vigil. Still others came in the darkness before dawn to watch the break of a new day over the Wall.
One vet came in a wheelchair. He could not talk or walk, but with great effort, Peter’s shaking hand could scrawl messages on a pad. The nurse who pushed his wheelchair said that Peter had been excited about the Moving Wall visit since he first read about it in the Daily News. Peter came to see the name of his friend he thought had died in 1975, but he could not remember the man’s name. They had been high school buddies and joined the Army together. They went to boot camp and Vietnam together. Peter saw his friend die. At the bottom of panel 1 West I squatted down and read off the names of the small number of men and one American woman who died in Vietnam in 1975. Peter did not recognize any of the names.
The EDS computer operators ran a search, but found no Vietnam casualties from Peter’s small home town. We asked if his friend might have come from another town, and Peter wrote “Wales?” The computer search gave one name, but he was killed in 1968. I went back to Peter and asked “Was his name Eric Jednat?”. The shock on Peter’s face, and then his tears, told us that we had found the right name. We moved to panel 53 West where we turned the wheelchair so Peter could touch his friend’s name.
Many people came who were not related, but knew one or more of the men named on the Wall. A high school teacher told me “I taught four of these boys.” Others said: “He was the little boy who lived across the street.”, “We were going steady in high school.”, “He delivered my newspapers.”, “I was his Boy Scout leader.”, “He went to our church.”, “I worked with his mother at the time he was killed.”, “My son played football with him.”, or “We were classmates for twelve years.” There were hundreds of similar personal connections between the visitor and one or more names on the Wall.
To other visitors, the names were not as personal, but still were significant: “I didn’t know him, but I remember how it shocked the town when he died.”, “I just wanted to pay my respects.”, “I didn’t know any of them, thank God.”, “I came to show support for the vets who came back.”, or “My son went to Vietnam, but he came back OK.”
Others expressed amazement: “I wanted to see the names of the seven young men from Holley, I can’t believe our little village lost so many boys.”, “I had no idea so many lost their lives.”, “Such a waste. Such a terrible, terrible, waste.”, “I hope and pray we never go through that kind of war again.”, or “Is this the price of peace?” Some visitors asked rhetorically: “Will mankind ever learn?”
Two weeks after the visit of the Moving Wall to Batavia, a friend told my wife “I don’t understand all the concern about the Moving Wall; why don’t people just forget about that dirty war?” For many, the Moving Wall does not need to be explained. Those who do not understand are, perhaps, more fortunate than those who do.