“Return to the Wall”

by Mick Hayden


It has been thirty-four years since I walked this stretch of sidewalk, years during which I haven’t thought much about this memorial dedicated to those who gave their lives in the Vietnam War. But the passage of time has sharpened my awareness of my own mortality and the significance of history and my role in it. This has made my time in Vietnam more important to me.

I’m with a group of Honor Flight veterans from central Missouri, most from the Korea and Vietnam eras, but one who is gracing our trip was a B-17 pilot during WWII, his cockpit now a wheelchair. We do this entire tour in one day, so time constraints don’t allow much time to pause at each site. With an escort of National Park Police, our buses speed from site to site as though we are a presidential motorcade. While we are drawn to all the monuments and want to see and absorb as many of these places as we can, we feel most connected to the ones that memorialize our time in service. This morning we walked on the sacred ground of the Arlington National Cemetery with its more than 400,000 headstones. The vastness of this place and the significance of the servicemen and women buried there makes my contribution seem rather small, but I’m still proud to have been a member of this brother and sisterhood. A visit to the Women’s Military Memorial, the Seabees Memorial, the Marine Memorial, the World War Two Memorial and the Korean Memorial have had their haunting effect on each of us, but my focus is on the Wall.

All of us have our own memories, at least those memories not yet stolen by the passage of time. The wear and tear of the years is evident on all of us. Men who once could have hiked twenty miles carrying a weapon and wearing a fifty-pound backpack are now moving with a slower, more measured pace. Many are in wheelchairs.

As we approach the south entrance to the Vietnam Memorial Wall, it’s a bit like entering the vestibule of a church. I pause at the Three Servicemen Statue, depicting young, combat-weary soldiers, then I descend into the black granite “V” that houses the names of those who died or are missing.

When I first visited this site in 1985, it was more a venture of curiosity than a reverential acknowledgement of my time in that sliver of land in Southeast Asia. My duty hadn’t been horrendous. I was in an artillery outfit, big guns, 8-inch and 175mm. Too big to be pushed out into the boondocks, even though they were self-propelled. Most of the time their long range allowed us to do our work and stay in the base camp area. We fired support for the 1st Infantry Division, the guys who actually did the dirty work of slogging around in the field, putting their butts on the line. When I placed my hand on the cool, black surface that first time, covering a name I didn’t know, tears immediately welled up and my throat tightened. To say I cried seems a bit tame. I bawled like a child. I was completely surprised and bewildered by this reaction. Why was I shedding these tears when my duty had been relatively easy and safe? Back then, I didn’t understand.

It was sometime later before I realized my sorrow was for the over 58,000 names, no, people, who are listed on that wall. People who never got to live full lives; those who never got to marry or have children and watch them grow up. Men and women who didn’t get the chance to have careers, perhaps even serve in government and help prevent us from making these mistakes again.

Still not fully understanding my reaction from all those years ago, I’m hoping this visit will bring me some clarity. Was that first visit too soon after my time of service? Did public opinion at that time make me suppress my real feelings? Perhaps it really was my perception of this war as a horrendous waste of life.

I start down the south-pointing arm of the Wall. It isn’t crowded but there are many people scattered along the concrete ribbon lining the inside of the “V.” Some are walking slowly, taking in the overall moment of the structure and its power. Others pause, looking for a particular name among so many, while some have found the searched-for individual and reverently touch the etched letters. A few are tracing the name with a pencil and paper so they can take the absent person home with them, as though the deceased could be removed from this honoring site and given a more restful place.

I stop about halfway down this arm of the Wall and haltingly place my hand flat against the shiny dark surface, feeling another etched name pressing into my hand. Will it draw out the same emotions and with the same intensity? My reflection stares back at me. It is again quite emotional, but this time there is no flow of tears. I quietly whisper, “Peace my brothers.” After a meditative moment, I back away, again taking in the size of the structure, each wing well over 200-feet long, and notice how small the names have to be to fit them all on this wall. I slowly move on down to the vertex of the memorial. Here the walls are probably ten feet tall, too tall for all the names to be reached, but they are still legible.

I notice the remembrances that people have left behind: a red rose tucked in at the base of a panel; a faded fatigue shirt folded with the name showing; on ahead a pack of cigarettes and a picture; past that, a pair of worn jungle boots, their significance known only to the person or persons who left them behind. The Park Service keeps all these objects. Somewhere nearby there must be a huge warehouse harboring a world of memories.

I move on up the gentle slope running along the east-pointing arm of the monument then stop about halfway to the end. I want to touch this healer again. I place my hand on one of the seams between adjoining panels and lightly rub and pat the surface, as you might a beloved dog. There truly is healing here: healing through tears, releasing suppressed memories and acknowledging that the lives lost were for a just and worthy cause. As I stand there, I hear a man’s voice behind me ask, “Did you lose someone here?”

Surprised, I turn and see a gentleman, perhaps in his 50s, with a young man I judge to be his grandson. “No one whose name I can recall,” I say. I know that doesn’t answer his entire question after he observed my actions at the wall. “I become a bit overwhelmed at how much space it takes to write over 58,000 names, even in small half-inch tall letters.” We continue talking for a few minutes, then wish each other the best and go our own ways.

I continue along to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. This last site wasn’t here on my first visit, and in fact wasn’t dedicated until 1993. I find this statue very moving in a different way from the Wall. Three women and an unconscious wounded man, frozen in time and place. One woman is supporting the wounded soldier with one arm and holding what looks like a compression bandage to his chest. The second nurse is standing with one hand on the first’s arm, looking up. I hear someone behind me say, “Look, she’s praying.” Maybe, I think, but more likely she’s saying, “Hurry up and get that damn ‘dust-off’ down here. This man’s dying.” The third nurse is kneeling, holding and looking at the soldier’s helmet as though dazed by it all. I stand there for several minutes, trying to imagine the horrors seen by women like these and the impact of dealing almost daily with the incredible damage weapons of war can inflict on the human body.

I slowly make my way back to the buses to visit more monuments honoring those who served in our wars, and I think about the aftershocks of these embroilments that are with us still.