She held me in her arms as I wept. “Welcome home,” she said. “Welcome Home.”
I had no idea who this woman was. I had never seen her before, nor would I recognize her if I ever saw her again.
I had heard of this phenomenal phrase, but in 28 years I had never been privy to it. It was such an emotional release. My heart began to let go of the pain of so many years of not being seen, of being ignored when I mentioned the word Vietnam. Since my return to the U.S. in 1969, I had stood stoically as people turned away or looked at me scathingly if I mentioned I had been there. I stopped talking about my experiences. I shut down and kept quiet for more than 25 years.
I had come to Washington, D.C., in 1997 at the invitation of Connie Stevens, the producer of the film “A Healing,” a documentary telling the stories of women I had been with two years prior when we revisited Vietnam on a personal healing mission. Several of us, who had never met prior to our trip in ’95, had arrived from all points of the United States to view the premiere of the film. We had seen the movie, wept over our stories, been feted, and now were at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
This was my first visit. We began at the Women’s Memorial, an afterthought to the wall honoring the nurses who served. Having spent time with a number of nurses on our trip, I was overwhelmed with the poignancy of the three young women holding the young G.I.
I had to step away from our group. I turned and walked a few yards toward the grassy area in front of the Wall. It was such an amazing sight, snuggled into the berm behind it, the granite shimmering in the sunlight, the apex rising 10 feet above the two ends. I stood there stiffly, trying to bring my emotions into balance.
This woman, a stranger, walked up, took one look at me and said very softly, “Welcome home.” Startled, I turned to look at her as she opened her arms. “How did you know?” I was finally able to ask. “I was there,” she said. “I can tell when someone has never heard those two wonderful, simple words before.” We stood silently staring at the Wall until she patted me on the back and walked away.
The rest of my group began to walk toward the Wall. “Barbara, are you coming?” “No,” I mumbled, “I can’t, I’m not ready.” It seemed like such a private, sacred place. A walk to honor lost friends, husbands, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, uncles or grandfathers. More than 58,000 men and eight women. I didn’t want to intrude.
I knew of only one name on the Wall. A young ROTC student from the University of California, Berkeley. We had known each other a couple of years before when both our fathers were stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco. We had danced and shared a sweet kiss as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. A couple of years later, he had stepped on a land mine, just two months after arriving in country. He left a wife and a new baby. Along with our friends, I mourned his passing.
There were so many young guys I met in Saigon, the names and faces of whom I had forgotten. The swift boat commander, the assault helicopter pilot, the forward recon pilot. I dated each a few times. We shared good meals, spoke of loneliness, traded stories of home and a few hugs and kisses. Then they each abruptly dropped out of my life. I have always hoped they disappeared because we just didn’t mesh, not for any other reason. Now I could only hope their names weren’t etched on that beautiful wall. I had no way of knowing.
While in Washington amid the gala for the opening of the Women in the Military Museum, friends from Portland had sent me a beautiful arrangement of flowers with a simple card that read, “You are so brave.” I didn’t get the sentiment, but the flowers were exquisite and the words touching.
On our last morning in the city, I knew what I had to do. I grabbed my husband, who had accompanied me. “Dave, we have to go to the Wall. I need to take the flowers, now!”
We stopped at the Women’s Memorial first, then walked past the statue of the Three Soldiers who stand watch over the Wall. I recognized the young, exhausted but determined faces of the boys I had seen on the streets in Saigon and at a fire base in Phu Loi.
Then we began our stroll along the Wall, gently touching the occasional name as we walked, neither of us saying anything. We slowly made our way to the apex. There were amazing gifts of remembrance along the way: a baseball glove, letters, photos, unit patches, medals, a bottle of beer, ball caps and dog tags. Things so personal, honoring those names.
We reached the apex, 1968, my year. This is where I knew to leave my bouquet. I bent, placed the flowers, and crying softly, whispered, “You were so brave.”
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