“First Time to the Wall”

by Ann Casapini

My counselor, Angel Rivera, encouraged me to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., with a group of vets from his Lower West Side outreach center. None of us had ever been to “The Wall” before. Angel specialized in working with veterans and their spouses. I guess he thought this trip would help me understand what was going on with my husband, Patrick, who had served as a medic. We were newlyweds, but a month after the wedding Patrick spiraled down into binge drinking, hallucinations and a suicide attempt. He became an in-patient at the VA hospital’s detox and PTSD program. He was still in their locked psyche ward. We’d already been apart for half a year.

Unable to sleep well the night before, I got to West 23rd and Sixth even earlier than our 6AM meeting time. It was dark and raining hard. Half a dozen men were already pacing on the corner: chain smoking, sipping their coffees, not talking. I pretended to read a newspaper under my umbrella. After a while, I turned to one veteran.

“Too bad it’s raining,” I said.

“We don’t give a shit about the rain,” he shot back. “We lived in it. Walked in it. Ate in it. Slept in it. None of us give a damn about that.”

Trembling, I fought the urge to run home. Angel must have known how out of place I felt, because he came and sat next to me on the bus. As we drove down the turnpike the anxiety and dread coming from the men was palpable. No one said a word for the rest of the four-and-a half-hour trip.

Finally, we arrived at the National Mall. Angel, who had been an army captain, gathered the men – and me – to share in a ritual. We walked out onto Constitution Gardens and joined hands in a circle near the reflecting pool. One of the vets took out his trumpet and blew the military’s traditional Taps. While the haunting notes were played, the men stood at attention. They saluted their leader, Angel. They strengthened their resolve to do what they came to do. They formed a line and began their descent down the slope in front of The Wall, toward the apex of the memorial, more than ten feet below ground level.

Being the only female and the only non-soldier, I hung back at first. I watched the vets approach the black wall as if they were still “walking point,” cautiously advancing through unsecured territory.

Then began the search for their fallen friends among the 58,191 engraved names. Some broke down, sobbing. Some placed flags and mementos at the base of the mirror-like surface. Others took a rubbing of a name.

I hadn’t personally known any of the dead, yet the etched names drew me in close. I wanted to touch them. Not knowing why, I started looking for my husband’s surname on each section. As my eyes scanned the bottom of the fourth panel of dead soldiers, I saw his full name – Patrick Dillon – and lost strength in my legs. My knees hit the concrete. I saw my shocked reflection on the granite and barely recognized myself.

Gently tracing the dead soldier’s name, I caressed the letters and remembered the chiseled line and angle of my Patrick’s chin. I ached for him. The gates holding back the grief I’d been stuffing down for months swung open. I heard myself wailing.