'Those Who Are Still Alive': Vet Visits Vietnam Memorial To Find His Friend
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington,
explained to his son that 58,209 names on the long, black, angular wall stood for the people our country sent to the war in Vietnam and were killed. The son looked at the wall from side to side and up and down, then his eyes stopped and focused on me. I was standing with my head bowed and the fingers of my right hand were touching a specific name on the wall. With a puzzled expression on his face, the boy asked his father, "But Dad, what about the ones who are still alive?"
What, indeed, about the ones who are still alive, such as myself? It was my first visit to the wall, and quite frankly, it was anticlimactic. I thought the wall would be much more expansive, and I expected to become instantly spooked. I wanted melodrama, and I got a trip to the library.
I appreciated the wall for what it is: a low-profile monument honoring courageous individuals, most of whom were young men trained for battle in the armed forces. They took that dreary, soul-searching flight from the states to Southeast Asia and stepped out of the plane's air-conditioning into the blast furnace heat of jungle, rice paddies, sweat-stained camouflage, blazing weapons, warm beer and the smell of death. Some died inside as soon as their boots touched ground because of the danger they heard about and talked about on the long plane ride- the danger and the threat of annihilation at every step in the strange, steamy country with its sultry smells and dissonant sounds.
But after the first day and the first week, a familiarity with the game had a way of erasing initial tensions. Some of the men welcomed the routine of their assignments and were temporarily distracted from combat fear. But the fear of being maimed or killed never went away completely. And the routines, whether they were front line, grunt routines or technical, rearguard routines, made the men feel hopeless, because the days were too long and the jobs were senseless, and if you were not dead yet, you started counting the days until your tour was up.
For some, counting the days was the biggest danger of all. It was a mistake to count the days. That took your focus off the job at hand, which was war. You might fool yourself into thinking it was just camping out.
Too many of these men were 18 and 19 and 20 years old. They were kids who were pushed into manhood. They were armed and licensed to kill. Back home, though, they were not old enough to vote for a Johnson, a Goldwater, a Nixon or a Humphrey.
58,209 names are on the wall. 4,120 of them came from New York. It is a wall made of polished granite. Its mirror-like surface shows your own reflection as you search for a name. In the late morning mist of a cloudy Good Friday, I was searching for Lance Corporal William Henry Thomas, Jr., USMC, with whom I shared a warm beer just a few hours before his rat patrol Jeep hit a land mine on that hot, freakish night of March 25, 1970. I found him after all these years on row 44 of panel 12-W. I had to close my eyes as I fingered his name because I always close my eyes when I pray, and because with my eyes open, I saw myself touching his name, and that is dangerous for those of us who are still alive. If you watch your reflection in the wall for too long, you will see your dead acquaintance come alive and take your place, and his fingers will go to your name.
If you stand for a moment at the corner of Constitution Avenue and Henry Bacon Drive in Washington, D.C. and look toward the park, you will not see a wall. You will see only a grassy patch where tourists walk solemnly on a slanted path that brings them in and out of view. The people seem to be entering and exiting a long trench. From the opposite point of view, it is obvious that there is no trench. The monument is constructed like a retaining wall, and the lawn above and below it is cleverly landscaped so that it looks as if the visitors are paying their respects inside a bunker. Either way, there is no political statement showing. The wall is an understated memorial meant to begin a process of national reconciliation. Up close, the listings begin with Dale R. Buis from 1959 and conclude with Richard Vandegeer from 1975. The names are the dead and the missing in the Vietnam War.
I can only speak for myself, and I speak with caution about that sad, exotic tour of duty when I was a teenaged Marine. For a couple of decades I chose not to talk about it at all. But by degrees I have learned to lower my guard and enlist in the healing process. I have reached out to some fine people at the Vets Center at 120 West 44th St. in Manhattan, who, among other things, prepared me for my visit to the wall. Now, I am aware of a richness of spirit that I am lucky to own as a result of my time in that peculiar war. And for all intents and purposes, I am alive and well.