On December 2, I embarked on a trip that would affect me more than I ever realized. My sister-in-law asked me to go to Orlando, Florida and bring back her late son’s car. I agreed and decided to drive down and tow the car back on a car carrier. I also resolved to spend a day in Washington, DC and visit The Wall for the first time. I served in Vietnam in 1968-69 and, like anyone who was there, lost a number of friends. It was, I thought, time that I saw the memorial to them.
The Wall is located (as are the Korean War and World War II memorials, I visited all of them) within a few minutes walk from the Lincoln Memorial. The day was sunny and as crisp as an early fall day here in The County so I decided to wear my Marine Corps leather jacket with patches from all of the units in which I served (I must add that it was the first time I wore it in public). As we walked from the Lincoln Memorial toward The Wall we came upon the Vietnam Memorial (not the same as the wall–see picture) and took a photo of me standing in front of it.
Turning from the statue and walking to the entrance to The Wall was an experience that I will never forget. I steeled myself to show my usual tough Marine appearance and was doing all right until my partner, Jane, reached over with a tissue and wiped the tears from my face. I believe that at that moment all of the resentment I showed in regard to the treatment we received upon returning home disappeared. In fact when a woman passed by and said “Thank you for your service” I replied “You’re welcome. I’d do it again.” (You may remember my blog of last year in which I ranted about people saying, “Thank you for your service.” and how I felt that they lacked sincerity.)
I turned toward the mall and felt a strange serenity come over me. The Wall is surrounded by several busy streets and I heard none of the cars, trucks, and buses; it was as if I’d entered a cone of silence. Later Jane would laugh at me and say, “Some big bad Marine you are–walking toward The Wall, crying, and pushing a stroller with a five pound Maltese in it.” I smiled Maggie, the Maltese, is my Attack Fu-Fu; she barks at anyone who comes near Jane or I–at The Wall she was as silent as if she understood how this visit was important to me. For forty-eight years I’d been carrying around a sense of guilt that I survived when so many of my friends and fellow servicemen did not.
At the wall we were immediately greeted by George, a Vietnam Veteran who volunteered at The Wall to assist visitors. He took one look at my face and asked, “When were you there?”
I replied, “January 1968 to February 1969.”
He said, “Those were two of the worst years.” Then added: “This is your first time, right?”
My throat constricted and I had a difficult time answering him. “C’mon,” he said, “I’ll show you around. We stopped beside a panel and he showed me the diamonds beside some of the names and said: “The diamonds and crosses indicate whether a person is confirmed dead (those who died in accidents are included) or missing/whereabouts unknown. The diamond indicates a person’s death was confirmed. The crosses indicate that a person remains missing and unaccounted for and are not a religious symbol. A cross symbol can be easily turned into a diamond if a person is declared dead (such as the return of their remains). A circle will be inscribed around the plus if the person comes back alive. As of this time, no circle appears on the wall. On the West wall the symbols precede the names, while on the East wall they follow the names.”
As we walked along The Wall, George asked, “Are you looking for any particular names?”
“An old friend from my teen years, Richard Bubar. He was killed in what they called the Halloween Massacre the night of October 31- November 1, 1964.”
“Is that allowed?” I asked.
George opened his coat and suspended from his belt was packet of special paper and a stick of graphite. We did four rubs that day:
Richard P. Bubar. Richie was a longtime friend of mine and the son of my parents best friends. He was killed during a mortar attack. Date of Death: November 1, 1964. (Of the first three Maine men to die in Vietnam, two were from Caribou, Richie was the second.)
Dana L. Mace. A friend from high school. Date of Death: July 7, 1969.
Joseph A. Zutterman: Marion, Kansas. Joe took me under his wing when I arrived in Vietnam and when offered a promotion to sergeant if he extended did so. April 15, 1968 was the first day of Joe’s extension and he flew a mission as door gunner. Their helicopter was hit by an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) and exploded. Although we all know that Joe is dead, he is still officially listed as MIA believed Dead because the bodies of the four crew members were not recoverable.
Joe’s death had a profound impact on me and I made up my mind that I was not going to get close to anyone again. Unfortunately, I did so for forty-eight years. My late wife once said to a friend: “Vaughn fought the war in Vietnam; I fight the war in him.
I spent two hours at The Wall and when I came away I felt as if a great burden had been lifted from me. It was as if the 58, 307 people whose names are there told me that it was all right that I survived and it was past the time for me to move on. The Wall is a memorial to all who made the ultimate sacrifice and a place of healing for the rest of us.
This Christmas season, please take a few moments to think about these men and women (yes a great number of women served there too and eight have their names etched on The Wall) and the sacrifice they made so that we, those of us who survived and those of us who came after, have the freedom and liberty to celebrate in the way we want. I for one would willingly do it again in a heart beat.