My first visit was 14 years after it opened, right before an occupational safety conference in our nation’s capital. I could have visited a couple of times before, once on my second Army enlistment, yet something kept pulling me back. Perhaps guilt; I did not see any of the kind of action my buddies saw. I asked my friend Mike if he wanted to go, but he had a class. I called Joe, a veteran friend, who said he had gone once and didn’t care to go again.
I didn’t know what to expect — how I’d react when I found names I knew. I was not interested in the controversy about it. I’ll give this visit two hours max. I also wanted to join Mike and friends for a late dinner to relax. Yeah, I wanted to honor the names of fallen buddies I knew from my unit, the 44th Medical Brigade, and from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. Yet, I wasn’t going to do any rubbings of names. Many vets didn’t want to inflame any memories, and I might be one too.
I visited the usual sites in D.C., but all day I took deep breaths. I arrived at 1730 but couldn’t see where it was. I remembered Joe said it was below ground, not at street level. When I saw some vets wearing era fatigue jackets, I knew I’d found it. I parked and followed somber families and G.I.’s like myself as if we were all going to a funeral. First sight was a dressed Marine standing at attention under the flagstaffs. Then I saw it, the Vietnam War Memorial, “the Wall,” for the first time.
The etched names in the black polished granite were in chronological order — the date they were officially KIA or MIA. Well, how can I remember those dates, spending my life trying to forget? The memorial was divided into three periods that converged at its apex. I saw the bronze statue of three soldiers and the new Vietnam Women’s Memorial statue honoring gals who served, such as my Commanding Officer, a nurse. Panel numbers at the bottom were where you located names; or you could go to the National Park kiosk to see a list of last names with their row sections.
The kiosk had a long line, but I was patient. I found the date Jimmy, my Fort Bragg bunkmate, was killed and looked for his name inscribed under the row. His surname was there but I saw no one named James or Jimmy. Did I get the date wrong? Then I recalled that “Jimmy” was his nickname. For God’s sake, I couldn’t remember his formal first name and we’d been buddies for years! How stupid was I!
There was a crowd of veterans and their families crying. So many strangers came to comfort each other. One vet in front of me turned around and hugged me; I didn’t know him from Adam. I saw a scene I couldn’t imagine back then — a long-haired, “hippish,” bearded vet, a yellow First Sergeant patch on his tattered fatigue, sobbing loudly. I blinked. Why, a “Top” (enlisted platoon leader) doesn’t cry — they were gods to me, a private second class. I’d jump into live fire if my Top told me.
I tried reading without pushing others aside. I said “excuse me, brother” a thousand times. Tried to be stoical, but inside I was trembling. What troubled me most was weaving back and forth past so many names I didn’t know.
I was late. Driving back, I tried remembering our stories, where we came from. Jimmy’s dad had horse ranches in Utah, or was it Arizona? Then from my mind’s shadow came a forgotten image — a poster of Bob Dylan wearing a dark trench coat, smoking a cigarette. I didn’t like him at all, so why was his poster on my mind? He was arrogant, his voice was gruff and off-key, he answered questions about what his songs meant with shrugged shoulders. But it was where he stood that disturbed me. It seemed he was staring at military gravestones. It shook me and I had to pull over. I was remembering his song “With God on Our Side”: “My name it ain’t nothing/ my age it means less/ and the country I come from/ they call the Midwest/ I was born there and raised there/ the laws to abide/and the land that I came from/ had God on its side!”
I pounded my fist on the dashboard in anger: “No, no, you don’t! You’re frickin’ wrong! All their names, their ages, where they came, ranks, means everything to me and to all of us here. Sorry, Jimmy, I couldn’t remember your real first name, what city you came from, when you died. Forgive me!”
But Dylan was right in the end. There are just too many gravestones, too many names, too many wars. Leaning over the steering wheel, I cried.
I knocked on Mike’s hotel door at about 2135. He opened and I said: “Sorry for missing dinner.” I guess he saw my red swollen eyes because he grabbed my hand with both of his and smiled: “I knew you’d be late anyway … it’s OK, see you in the morning and get some rest.”
I knew in my heart Mike was right, but so were Jimmy, my buddies and all the 58,000 brothers and sisters who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and so was God, sobbing as a long-haired, bearded “Top” by the Wall. Walking to my room, another folksinger’s verse came to my lips: “There but for the grace of you … go I.”
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