by Richard Turton
The Wall is set up in front of a Christian Church on the outskirts of Grass Valley, CA; a gorgeous, tranquil setting nestled amongst the whispering ponderosa pines in the foothills of the Sierra. It’s the third week in May of 2003, just a couple days shy of my fifty-fifth birthday. Summer is threatening to heat up early this year.
When we first arrive, we are directed to a parking lot close to a pathway leading to the site. In the church itself, free food, coffee and haircuts are being offered along with prayer and guidance. The parking lot however, is an entirely different story; there are booths and displays set up by support groups from the AARP to Vietnam Vets Harley Owners Group. Several commercial concessionaires are vying for our attention for life insurance, colleges; anything to make a buck. All these groups, hawking their wares! The hullabaloo is about one level lower than a carnival midway; I’m starting to wonder if we’re doing the right thing. Somehow, in my mind’s eye, I’m expecting circumstances to be more… solemn.
A few days earlier, I saw an advertisement that would change my life; “Coming this weekend! A traveling 4/5 scale model of the Vietnam Memorial Wall!” A simple ad; informative & concise; who, what, when, where. But it unchained long latent agitation. Skirmishes began inside my head once again. Some days, the good guys would win the firefights; other days, the bad guys would hold the high ground.
My journey to quiet my dogs of war had been a long one – 35 years, in fact. Compared to many, mine was an easy trip, but for me it was a long, difficult time nonetheless. There were times when I was racked with survivor’s guilt, left wondering “Why him and not me?”
The first two years or so after I came home were filled with spasmodic, physical nightmares. The kind that hurt. After they settled into the background more or less. There was the counseling. Long, long hours of counseling. My wife told me it took me 10 years to regain my sense of humor.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder had not been formally identified until many years after the Vietnam War ended. In WWII, it was called ‘Shell Shock’ or ‘Battle Fatigue’. It is because of the Vietnam Vets that clinicians have come to diagnose this very real malady.
When I could no longer afford the counseling, I walked away. But Vietnam was always there, in the background, lurking in the shadows, always just out of sight, at the corner of my eye. I was alone, taking on this battle in solitude because it seemed there was no one else who understood, who could really know.
My father and I never saw eye to eye on many things while I was growing up. He was a WWII vet and I thought perhaps my experiences in the war might give us some equal footing, a commonality. Sadly, it was not to be. His take on the returning vets was “Nobody’s gonna’ give you bastards anything. Sorry, you’ll have to work for it!” The implied continuation of the thought, of course, was, “Just like I had to!” When the Vietnam vets organized and went to Washington D.C. to lobby for help for the lethal short- and long-term effects of their exposure Agent Orange, his response was, “I wish these damn Vietnam Vets would just grow up and quit whining!” But my dad served in Texas and Florida and never saw combat, never left the Continental United States. We never spoke of Vietnam after that. Him shutting me out yet again only served to deepen my feelings of rejection and loneliness.
After seeing the ad for The Wall and struggling with all the thoughts and turmoil it stirred, I finally decided I needed to confront my hounds of war.
My wife and I asked my son and daughter-in-law if they wanted to go along with us. They readily agreed. In hindsight, I’m not sure they knew what they were getting into.
At the church, we walk along the marked path towards a group of blue & white tents. The tents themselves are clean, modern, bright; not like the dank, rotting, musty WWII era canvas tents I was accustomed to from the Army.
Inside there is artwork and Vietnam memorabilia for sale. When we first enter, there is image after image hung from the walls of the tents. The doors I thought I’d nailed shut years ago strain against their hinges; banshee-like manifestations stirring, swirling through the fractures like tendrils of smoke bubbling from a witches cauldron. Framed artwork in oils and watercolors. Display pedestals hold ceramics fired in the forges of agony. I see many dark, soulful portraits of soldiers with empty, haunting eyes and the ‘thousand-yard stare’ that comes from witnessing too much, too fast, too young. The colors have a common theme: blacks, browns, camouflage green. The only splatter of color is red. I hurry our group through the tents for fear of being enveloped once more and sucked back into the jungle.
Back in the light of day, there it is. The Wall. It starts at ground level, slowly, steadily swelling towards the center, like the waves of war; each section bigger than the previous. And the names. The sheer number of names! 57,662 young men and women who gave their all for America. The enormity of the display brings us to tears without realizing it. My wife looks at me, crying, “An entire generation, wiped out…gone!” Raw fury pours from our souls. After a while, when we get our emotions temporarily reined in again, she makes her way back to the tents, accompanied by our son and daughter-in-law. There is a desk with computers manned by volunteers. If you know the name of someone who was killed in Vietnam, the volunteers will tell you the panel number and line number where the person is located. She knows of two such young men, and eventually they find them. Recalling long ago memories of better times, she gazes at their names, etched deeply into the cold, black marble. She can’t help herself; she’s compelled to reach out to touch their names.
Later, my son would confide, “I didn’t realize until then that it was your war too, Mom, I thought it was just Dad’s.”
As I set off on my own mission, my son keeps a respectful distance, just off to my left and behind a step or two, unsure of where our journey is heading.
I stare fiercely at the wall. My understanding sluggishly evolves and a thought painfully emerges – I am standing eye to eye with my survivor’s guilt; at a snail’s pace, things begin to resolve; to make a little more sense.
A volunteer approaches. The young man quietly asks, “Excuse me, sir. Were you there? Were you in Vietnam?”
Shaken from my reverie, I reply I was. He says, “Thank you, sir. Thank you for your service.” He then asks, “May I give you a hug, sir?” I think to myself, “What the Hell, why not?” and hold up my arms as we hug. After a brief hug, he backs up a step and says, “Thank you again, sir.” He moves off, just as silently as he’d arrived.
My head is swimming because of feelings swirling about me. My son approaches softly and asks if I am all right. I don’t trust myself to speak so I just nod. No one has ever thanked me for my service before.
A short time later, another volunteer comes up and asks the same question; “Were you there, sir?” When I again reply I was, he asks, “May I pray with you?” Again, I just nod and he takes my hands as we face each other, heads bowed. He says a short prayer thanking God for my safe return and asking that He watch over me and my family. He too, thanks me and quietly moves off.
Something is happening inside me, I feel the dogs of my war begin to cower, cringing, shrinking. I regain control of their leashes and get them firmly back in my grasp once again. The burden of my shame is being lifted from my shoulders. I no longer feel I must hang my head.
As I walk down the trail, back to my car, I pause, look back over my shoulder, to the headstone for the war, honored but humbled to have served with my Warrior Brothers and Sisters who fell in the jungles.
I was a totally different person from the one who walked in an hour (a lifetime) earlier. For the first time in my life, I say it aloud, “Yes. I am a Vietnam Vet!”
And now I say it proudly, “I am a Vietnam Vet!”