I wrote the following after a visit to the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in 1988.
On December 13, 1969 a scared young man got off of a plane at Bien Hoa Air Force Base in Vietnam. Thirteen and a half months later on February 1, 1971, that same young man – older and wiser – returned home to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. In those months, a lot happened that took years to accept. The real acceptance of that experience started on July 28, 1988, over 17 years later. That’s when I visited the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (“The Wall”) for the first time.
My experience in ‘Nam was different than most, I wasn’t out in the boonies carrying a rifle, nor was I totally a “REMF” at a rear base camp. I was a “71M20” Chaplain Assistant. That meant I was the Chaplain’s bodyguard, driver, secretary, chapel organist and chapel builder. In addition, I visited our wounded at the evacuation hospitals and assisted in memorial services.
That may not sound like much to you. I didn’t see actual combat – instead, I saw the aftermath. I haven’t talked much about it except to other Vietnam veterans – we’ve had a propensity to keep our feelings to ourselves. At the most, we’ll discuss it with other Vietnam veterans. Recently, with the building of “The Wall” and some of the programs on TV we’ve started to let our feelings come to the surface. They call itt “Delayed Stress Syndrome” or something like that.
In the meantime, we’ve kept to ourselves. I have a very close friend in Des Moines who saw a lot of combat. We’ve spent several nights just talking. Occasionally he will have a flashback. Our mutual friends know that’s the time to leave us alone. I know I’m one of the few men who understand what he’s going through.
When I visited “The Wall”, my first thoughts were that I wished he could have been there with me to share our feelings and, yes, cry on each other’s shoulders. The memorial invokes those feelings, It is truly a moving experience.
As you approach the memorial, it's almost like entering the sacred ground. Signs request “N Smoking”, “No Food”, “No Running”.
A brochure published by the Parks and History Association fittingly describes the memorial “Like a roll call of time, the memorial lists casualties by date of loss, starting at the vertex. The first name, Dale R. Buis is inscribed under the date 1959 on panel 1E. Names continue eastward to panel 70E, reaching May 1968 at the end of the east wing. The sequence continues at the walls opposite end on panel W70 as if the memorial has circled underground and surfaced again At the vertex, the toll ends with Richard Vande Geer at the bottom of panel W1 above the date 1975. End meets beginning; the circle is complete.”
On my visit to the memorial, I noted an envelope sitting against one of the panels. A soldier’s name had been copied from the memorial. Written on the envelope was “Dear Dad, I’m sorry I never got to know you. Love, …
It is a memorial not only to those who lost their lives but all who served. This is best described by the inscription at the base of the memorial’s flagpole “The flag affirms the principles of freedom for which they fought and their pride in having served under difficult circumstances…”
Anyone visiting Washington DC, whatever their political stance during the Vietnam war, should visit the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Take in the wall with the veteran standing beside you, tears in his eyes and try to understand the necessary healing of the nation that is taking place. We the Vietnam Veterans, do not expect the general public will ever fully understand what we went through. We only ask that you accept that we served our country as have other veterans.