It was almost inevitable that I would visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also known as “The Wall.” One of my ROTC instructors at Hobart College had died in Vietnam – Major Theodore “Ted” Shorack in 1966, and a good friend of mine Pvt James Kirkby was killed on an Army patrol in South Vietnam about 1970.
Early on I decided to go to the Wall to search for their names. On one of my manyvisits I found the names and stood silently for a moment and remembered these men.
It is hard to put into words the impact of this place on the first visit. In many ways the place is very disarming. It starts as a low black granite panel on each end and gradually rises, in a dramatic V to an apex of more than 10 feet high at its center. As you descend the walk the names grow up the walls, more and more, until they tower above you. It is very moving. In the center are two dates 1959 and 1975, mark the first and last official casualties.
One name, twenty names, a hundred names, a thousand names, ten thousand names, they flood the areas in front and behind you, above and around you. You look at your reflection on the polished granite and you become one with them. It is almost as if you are behind the names and once again they are part of you. And, you are drawn back to those days in the 1960s when the war dominated the daily news, people marched in the streets, and the dead were always with us.
Now they are the “Honored Dead” bearing a silent witness to their sacrifice and what it cost this nation. They are silent, but they are not forgotten. Along the path you are struck by the items people leave there. A Teddy Bear, medals, flowers, photographs, a scrapbook, letters, and it goes on and on. These are so personal it is sometimes painful to see them, almost if you were violating a sacred place by being there.
Over the course of our nine years in Washington, I would be drawn back to “The Wall” many, many times. I have been there on Veterans Day, a particularly poignant experience as men moved along the wall, stopped and knelt, and cried. Some men moved with great difficulty, some where in wheel chairs, some were missing limbs, some were in old army uniforms, some wore medals, many had long hair and beards, but they were all brothers in their losses, and drawn to this place for their own private reasons.
In the years to come, I know that I will again go to that granite wall in the quiet park in Washington .
And I will be glad once more to visit my old friends and think back, as so many do, to our times together so long ago, and know that as long as the wall stands, they will stand also high in the hearts of their countryman.