"Memorial Day and every day: Vietnam veterans' bitterness, sadness flow at The Wall" P
Among our Memorial Day remembrances are this look at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The story first ran in 2012:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The surreal scene runs in an endless loop across the movie screen of his mind's eye.
The radio man — everyone called him Doby — trips a booby trap tethered to a grenade.
"Boom!" Mike Groff shouts, re-enacting the sound.
Groff is just feet away from his friend when it happens – but halfway around the world from all that he knows.
He's in Vietnam.
For a moment, despite the explosion, Doby seems OK.
"He just stood there," Groff recounts. "Then, he just fell."
Groff goes silent. His voice returns as a hush: "Shrapnel went right through his forehead."
It's 1968. Groff is 22. Doby is all of 18 or 19.
To this day, Groff can't recall his dead friend's real name. But he'll never shake the images of Doby's death. So decades later, he pens a poem:
Doby was a friend of mine
Doby dies time after time
He died just once in Vietnam
But he dies forever in my mind
It takes 20 years after returning home to Lebanon for Groff to put these words to paper. Until then, the former Army machine gunner and Silver Star and Purple Heart recipient remains isolated, alone — and angry.
"It's the stuff you see," Groff, 66, explains. "You don't see civilization. I can see that in my mind as clear as the day it happened."
Worse, America's harsh response to the unpopular war — and its warriors — causes Vietnam vets like Groff to go underground. Upon returning home, they're advised to shed their uniforms as soon as they step off the planes transporting them stateside.
Groff tries wrestling his demons in the dark for two decades. But he badly loses the battle.
His family and friends stage an intervention. Finally, he seeks help for his PTSD. A counselor urges him to write. This helps. But what Groff really needs are his brothers in arms. Only they truly know what he's going through.
One thing enables Vietnam veterans to find each other again. It makes it OK to wear the symbols of their service.
The belated honor for warriors who sacrificed for what many call a mistake comes in 1982. It's dedicated on that Veterans Day, 30 years ago now. A feeble World War I veteran lays a flag at its feet. This becomes the first of more than 50,000 artifacts to be left there in reverence and honor.
But the monument to honor our mistreated, maligned Vietnam veterans is so simple in its design and understated in its execution, controversy swirls around even this. Some misread it as yet another slight.
Almost miraculously, healing begins. And the once-tumultuous tribute stands the test of time.
It becomes an emotional touchstone for a time an entire country tried to forget, but couldn't. Now, the names of the fallen — all the names — are put before us. America can no longer look away.
This provides catharsis long in coming.
Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., are known to weep at the scale of the loss, even when they know not a single name etched into its black marble.
For those who served, the stew of emotions is far more potent — and poignant.
They call it simply "The Wall."
But instead of dividing and separating a country, as the war once did, we meet there.
Past meets present. The living commune with the dead. And after once turning its back, a nation pauses to embrace all those who sacrificed for it.
The interactive memorial
Perhaps no monument on earth more effectively and profoundly conveys the cost of war.
This goes beyond the 58,256 names of the dead and missing. It's the way they are presented — chronologically.
The Wall seems to rise from the earth at each end. Name upon name, year after year of war, the Wall grows higher.
Meanwhile, the path to visit it leads down — the same trajectory as a country being drawn deeper and deeper into conflict.
In the sunlight, the black marble monoliths that comprise each panel of the Wall reflect one's own image. The silent, subtle message: In another time and place, it could have been you — your name — etched in stone.
Visitors don't just look. The rows of names beg to be touched, as if each is a physical presence. And visitors can be seen running hands across the surface, feeling the imprint the war's dead and missing have made upon history.
Families and fellow service members bring paper and pencil to transfer the names of loved ones onto sheets, to be forever treasured. Tucked into a family Bible, perhaps.
In all of these ways, the Vietnam Wall becomes the first interactive memorial. Not a statue or monument to stand mute. But rather an invitation to bear witness to loss. The loss of lives. Of futures. Of a cause.
The sum of these things speak with undeniable power. It's almost absurd to think of the genuine controversies that swirled around its design. But this elegant eulogy to heroes lost, strategies abandoned and causes forsaken was roundly panned when first proposed.
The way the Wall becomes part of the landscape of the Mall, some critics mistook as hiding an embarrassment — America's lost war. Once again, Vietnam veterans, so scorned upon returning home and ridiculed along with their unpopular war, were seen as getting short shrift.
Some called it a gouge in the ground. Where was the sculpture? Where was the flag?
These things would be added later, away from the Wall. Today, they seem almost an afterthought.
Only the Wall has the gravitational pull. Only the Wall has the weight of the names.
Names begin and end in the middle — the highest point of the 150-foot expanse.
At the top, right under a brief dedication, the chronological record of loss begins in 1959 with Dale R. Buis. Some 16 years and 58,255 names later, the roll call of heroes snakes back around to the bottom of the adjoining panel. There, Richard VandeGeer completes the book of sorrows in 1975.
The Wall completes a circle. It provides a somber note of closure. The first and the last. The beginning and the end. And each visitor to the Wall is forced to travel this hard road.
Many leave things behind. Combat boots, dog tags, unit patches, flowers, pictures and letters never to be read. One night, there's a pizza box and a six-pack of beer. A slice is gone, and a single beer is missing — a buddy having shared one last meal with a fallen friend.
Veterans will tell you that when a service member goes down in combat, they often never see him again. Helicopter ambulances swoop in and whisk them away. Later, word passes that they didn't make it.
That's why for many Vietnam vets, the Wall is the only grave marker they'll ever visit for their lost friends. Sometimes, they can't even remember their formal names. Just a nickname. And a face.
It doesn't matter. The Wall stands for all lost heroes.
And when one touches The Wall, you touch them all.
'Every name is a family'
Inside the veterans hall, the air fills with cigarette smoke and stories. So many stories.
How does such a short stint of time imprint itself on the soul so deeply? Is it the intensity? What's at stake? The violence? The fear?
Or is it that so few truly know what it's like to go to war?
Sometimes it feels to Joe Novak of Steelton that his whole life centers around those years in Vietnam. The Marine severed from 1969 to '71. He has a dozen friends on the Wall. Yet he still holds fondness for this time. Nostalgia, even.
And pride. Plenty of pride.
Novak looks at the fading pictures of himself and smiles. He was so young — lean and strong. The very apex of youth. He'll always associate this physical potency with the war.
But the 62-year-old bear of a man also warns that he can't talk about these times without tearing up. This is true of all of them here, at the Michael J. Novosel Capital Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America in Swatara Twp.
Without warning, a mental image, a mere thought or a single word can cause voices to hitch, lips to quiver and eyes to well. It's all still right there. Immediate and real.
And if the Wall gives those who weren't there even the faintest understanding of their sacrifice and loss in order to serve their country's calling, then it's a fitting tribute. Then maybe it meant something. The whole damn thing. It mattered. They mattered.
The names on it belong to history now. Time is catching up with the veterans. Their ranks are thinning at alarming rates. The culprit, more often than not, is cancer. Perhaps tied to all the caustic agents used in war. It's another reason some remain so bitter.
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And when they're gone, only the Wall will speak. The names, quietly echoing across eternity.
To think that it almost wasn't built?
"Before the Wall, all the monuments were big, giant statues and stuff like that," recalls Sgt. Larry Carter of Susquehanna Twp.
"Here comes a black wall in the ground," the 64-year-old Bronze Star recipient says. "A Chinese-American designed it. That made a big stink. A lot of Vietnam vets were totally against it. It was sure a radical design."
Sgt. Audrey Bergstresser, who served in Army administration from 1969-72 as part of the Women's Army Corps., was stationed in Germany when the Wall was unveiled.
"There were a lot of Vietnam veterans almost angry about it," confirms the Lower Paxton Twp. resident, now 65. "They thought it was another slap in the face."
What it ending up being was an invitation.
"To me, it means the nation accepted Vietnam veterans back into society," Bergstresser says. "It's totally different from the experience we had when we came home."
Yet, some who served still can't bring themselves there. "My brother hasn't been to the Wall," Bergstresser confides. "He can't do it yet."
In the end, project leaders rushed to break ground before the Wall could be put on hold. Ross Perot provided early seed money. Designer Maya Lin's vision would rise on the National Mall.
Only when veterans visited did their doubts evaporate and long-buried emotions take hold.
"It's quietness," says Carter, who goes nearly every year. "It's like a shrine. To me, it's still like the first time I'd seen it. My feelings there will always be the same."
In 1991, Carter proposes marriage at the Wall. There's no better place. He wants to do it near his buddies. Not the men who accompany him on the trip. But the friends whose names are on the Wall.
Larry and Carol Carter of Susquehanna Twp. were engaged in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Here, the past is present. Carter's wife, Carol, senses this, too. The sight of the pizza box and six-pack left at the Wall still brings tears to her eyes. Because of what they mean. "That hit me more than anything," Carol Carter says. "Someone had a slice of pizza and a beer with his buddies."
The Carters feel so strongly, they ask to be married at the Wall. "They wouldn't let us," she says. Nevertheless, family is all around.
"Every name is a family – that's what it means," insists Allen C. Welch, first vice president of the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter.
"I have two great friends there," he adds. "It's catharsis. It's the names. You can't go to any other memorial in the country and have that experience."
The Wall helps Vietnam veterans find one another again.
"I think the Wall has vindicated itself," adds Mike Groff, one of those who it helped bring the rest of the way home. "I think the Wall had a very healing effect on us veterans. After the Wall, you saw veterans willing to say they were Vietnam veterans. Nobody was doing that before the Wall. I hid for 20 years."
For others, it remains a monument to a mistake. A painful one, at that.
"To me, it's a waste of a full generation of American men and women for a war we didn't need to get involved in," says an emotional Richard Burton of West Hanover Twp. Now 66, he served there from 1969-70.
"I have a very hard time going to the Wall," Burton admits. "To me, it's just infinite sadness. That's what the Wall represents to me."
Dr. Gary Lewis takes a measure of solace there. An orthopedic surgeon in Vietnam from 1969-70, the retired Derry Twp. ob-gyn can look at the Wall and know he helped keep more names from being etched into its marble.
"If they got to the hospital alive, only two out of a hundred died," the 71-year-old former Army captain proudly states. Still, despite the heroics of the helicopter "dust off" medical crews and the surgical success rates of the mobile hospitals, too many were lost.
Only the Wall can convey this grim accounting.
"We lost all those people to fill up a wall," Lewis says, almost in awe. "The names on it. All the names."
His once-booming voice trails off.
Average age: 20 years old
At the Wall, there's a clear difference between the many who flock to look. And the few who come to search.
Directories as thick as phone books unlock keys to the Wall. Coordinates that enable family members and battle buddies to seek out a single name among thousands. A name that conjures a face, a voice, a favorite saying. And an entire future, lost.
Two gray-haired men from Texas approach the Wall. Each has a name — and a flood of memories to find.
They walk up to a park ranger. Instantly, the ranger recognizes them as veterans. He looks up the names and provides the men with a set of numbers.
For Vaughn McCarty of San Antonio, the name is Marcos Hinojosa. Back in 1968, the pair are among eight Texas boys drafted around the same time and assigned to the same unit in Vietnam.
During orientation right before they're shipped out, an officer coldly lays out the odds: One in eight won't make it back. Hinojosa is the unlucky one among this group of Texas buddies. Now, he takes his place on the Wall: Panel 56 West, line 22.
McCarty finds his friend. He lowers himself to his knees. He kneels on the hard, cold, uneven pavers at the foot of the Wall, then touches the engraving. After a moment, he pulls out a white sheet of paper and a tiny pencil.
Gently, he rubs the graphite over Hinojosa's name. The letters slowly appear amid the pencil scratchings.
As McCarty does this, onlookers surround him. They take pictures and video with smart phones and cameras. Instinctively, they know this is the real deal: A veteran making that most private and solemn of pilgrimages to what amounts to a military graveyard — all amid tumult and tumble of a tourist attraction.
McCarty is stone-faced and silent. He struggles back to his feet. He returns the pencil to the park ranger, uttering a simple 'thanks.'
Later, he speaks of the vagaries of time. How scores of years can be erased in an instant, plunging him back into that place on the other side of the world.
It was hell, he says. But they were young and strong — brothers in arms.
McCarty still sees Hinojosa's face, clear as day. A face that will never age. A memory that he'll never shake. And a name never to be erased from the Wall — or from history.
"The average age on that Wall is 20 years old," McCarty, 66, whispers, his chin quivering with the emotion that accompanies his first trip here.
"Just kids," he says. "That's all we were."
For Richard Scholl of Wimberley, Texas, the name is William Hayes. Scholl knows the man just three weeks before it happens. Yet, the irony of Hayes' death haunts for a lifetime.
In June 1968, Hayes is sent to be Scholl's replacement as an administrator at an Air Force base. Scholl spends three solid weeks showing Hayes the ropes. Then a mortar attack rains down, and Hayes is hit.
Since he's the only one who really knows the unlucky newbie, Scholl identifies the body. But since he really doesn't know Hayes all that well, Scholl never reaches out to his family. He regrets this to this very day.
"I was over there a year," says Scholl, now 74. "He was there three weeks, and he was gone."
It happens like that. No rhyme or reason. Just a three-week, mostly-business relationship that endures for a lifetime.
Hayes has summoned Scholl to the Wall three times now. His first visit, some 15 years ago, showed how much those three weeks in the war really meant to him.
"When I found the name, I put my hand on his name and stood there and cried," Scholl recounts. "I didn't expect that."
You don't have to be a veteran or a veteran's family member to be drawn to the Wall.
A retired English teacher remembers a student. An outgoing, kind of goofy show-off with middling grades. Every classroom has one. Only, this one ships off to Vietnam shortly after graduation.
And he never comes back.
His teacher, Robert Wills of Crystal City, Mo., comes to the Wall to find his student all these years later. Wills locates his name — George T. Hall. He rubs the name onto paper. And a teacher thinks of the boy in his classroom from so long ago.
"He wasn't a very good student," Wills admits. "But he didn't deserve to be over there."
A few come to the Wall, even though they don't want to.
The tall, gray-bearded man bites at his lower lip. His feet shuffle deeper and deeper into the memorial, almost against his will.
He descends down into it, the black panels bearing the names, rising higher and higher at his side.
The man seems to be staggering now. He leans his body against the smooth marble, reaching up with a hand to touch the top of the Wall. But as he descends ever deeper, the Wall grows too high.
Even this tall man can no longer touch the top.
Then, the names overwhelm him. The loss overcomes him. The man removes his glasses and wipes at his eyes with a handkerchief.
Later, the man — Ben Keahey of Fayetteville, Ark. — blurts in a mournful exhale, "I was over there." This sounds almost like an apology. His voice rings with regret.
"I think it was a waste of lives," says the 72-year-old Navy veteran of two tours. "We did what our government told us, but a lot of people died."
And in the end, it changed nothing, Keahey insists. Except, all the lives of the men and women who served.
This has made him bitter. It's the reason Keahey had no intentions of visiting the Wall while he was in Washington. In fact, he had told himself that he wouldn't come.
Something drew him, anyway.
The Wall. The names. The gravitation pull of the staggering cost of war.
That's what will endure, long after the last Vietnam vets have joined their brothers and sisters on the Wall.
It's a lesson and a warning — as well as a memorial.
"The immensity of that wall and all the names. It's just incredible," says Tom Freedman of New Cumberland, a former Army combat medic from 1967-68.
"I think that the Wall is meant to make people in general, the population, remember what the costs of war are," the 65-year-old says.
"It's the brothers and fathers who never made it back," he says. "It's what they gave to this country.
That's why the Wall was made. To look and remember and say, 'We don't want to let this happen again'."
Or as Major Richard Grubb, 74, of Lower Paxton Twp., insists:
"The guys that served and laid down their life will live forever."
On The Wall.
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