Something amazing happened today. My dad took me with him to the traveling Vietnam memorial wall.
Last night I couldn’t sleep in anticipation. I was certain I’d lose it entirely at that wall, watching my dad read through names. I imagined him finding someone familiar. I imagined him feeling things he hadn’t felt in years. Turns out the old man is a good bit tougher than I am. Or far better at hiding his feelings.
I cried like a baby when I saw the length of that wall. I tried to be discreet and the wind did help, blowing hair over my wet eyes repeatedly.
Then we reached this spot.
This section, July of ’68. That’s when dad arrived in country. From that spot onward, I struggled with my composure.
That’s when I really felt it all as my father searched for names he knew. The meaning in the wall was crystal clear.
I read a lot. Lists of names and words in print tend to lose some meaning as time passes and I grow used to the sight of the letters and lists. But here, with him, lists sprung to life.
Each chiseled letter made out a name. Each name was once attached to living, breathing human. Most were young. Dad was 18 when he got there.
The wall came alive with faces I’d never seen. They were flashing through my mind. Sweating, smiling, filled with courage and honor and a sense of duty. Filled with hope and a hell of a lot of fear. I tried not to get into the dark reality. I would have collapsed where I stood had I allowed my mind to imagine it. All those young souls. All gone. I erased the blood from the memories I’d just created.
What lies in the picture below took the breathe from me. I gave it to their memories so they could breathe once more as they appeared before me just then.
Do you see the flags above the wall down the way? One is yellow.
Those flags flew dead center atop the long wall. They mark the end of my father’s time in that place. Not the end of his service, though. He had forest fires to fight when he got back, after all.
I started thinking some thoughts just before I snapped this photo. The names on that wall, as the height of the list gradually increased to plateau in the center to be feet higher than my head, were names of service men and women who had died while my dad was there with them.
I nearly threw up.
There were so many. It was nearly half of the wall. My mind was spinning.
All of that loss of life. It was happening within miles, feet, inches of him. I don’t know. He doesn’t talk much about it. That magnitude of suffering, fear, the last moments of so many; the death must have hung heavy upon the humid air.
That tragic effect of war must change the atmosphere of a place. I bet you could taste it. I imagine the energy there was stifling and soul smothering.
I wont ask him to describe it. Though I’ve always been curious, we learned not to pry.
Once, when I was in elementary school, I had a project to do. I had an assignment. I was to ask someone who had been to a different country about their sensory experience there and he was the only person I knew who had ever been outside of the United States. Well, there were some who had been to Canada. But, Minnesota and Canada are practically the same thing. I didn’t think anyone would be excited to hear about that report.
He agreed to it. We did just fine with sight.
Jungle. Trees. Lots of green leaves.
We were still good at taste.
He described some type of soup with fish eyes in it.
Sound was where I noticed some agitation. I don’t recall what he said exactly. I remember his answer being related to something loud.
But, smell is where I stopped. I stopped mid word while I wrote.
After I asked he paused. Then he simply said, “Rotting vegetation and bodies.”
I closed my notebook and walked away. After thanking him of course.
I remember peering back at him in his recliner from the end of the hall. He seemed sad and slightly angry. As an adult I now know that I have no idea exactly what he was sad about or who he was angry with.
I didn’t ask things for a long time after that.
I learned more today than I have in the last 32 years of my life about his time there while visiting that wall.
This war thing is something no one can understand unless they’ve lived it, but is often described as the most painful and cruel experience a human being can withstand. And each war is unique. Each battlefield is different. The jungles of Vietnam must have been sheer terror as so many veterans of that war in particular refuse to recall what occured.
Or maybe it was the treatment they received upon coming home. Shameful words of hate. No parades. Pure torture.
He read some names aloud and I honestly couldn’t bear to think he’d known them. He knew a few it seemed. Some from bootcamp.
The section of the wall in the photo below signifies the end of my fathers time there. November of ’69. Nearly every name on the wall before this spot, aside from a couple of short panels, were soldiers who lost their lives while my father shared that soil.
Upon additional research I discovered he was there during the deadliest years of occupation. The numbers varied slightly by source, but only slightly. In 1968 around 16,800 American soldiers lost their lives there. In 1969 around 11,780 died. The year 1967 was heavy in losses as well.
These are only the numbers for the American military members who died there. So much death in such a brief period of time. And he was there to feel it all.
Tears flowed forth. I tried to hide them. Dad was talking. Then he tilted his head down so he could look up at me from the top of his happy blue eyes, and he smiled at me.
I patted him on the back and we walked on.
On to honor the rest. Reading unfamiliar names and letting those strangers live in our hearts if only for the moment.
He answered more of my questions. How many people a plattoon was comprised of. How hot it usually was.
His best friend there was Azel, from Chicago. A nice black dude. They had a lot in common. Azel must be an awesome fellow.
He was also close with a T. C. and a Bobby. One from Arizona. The other he wasn’t sure.
He recognized a name on the wall. A guy from bootcamp who loved to smoke. He frequently got caught smoking when he wasn’t supposed to so he would often be seen standing outdoors with a rifle hoisted high over his shoulders until he could no longer hold it there with drill Sargent’s yelling, all so he could get a puff.
To think that he was gone.
I wonder what stories his fellow soldiers would tell about my father if he had landed on that wall.
I kept thinking of a picture he had once shown me. He was standing with two young Vietnamese boys under his arms. They were all smiling. They were all so young.
58, 307. Conflict. Something about that doesn’t sit right with me.
We walked out eventually. We walked past a chopper. He said he’d been in one of those.
I asked if this was the one they hung from and jumped into the jungle from. He said, “No. Those were bigger with men jumping from the tail end.”
We were driving out and he mumbled something about a deuce.
A two ton truck. He drove lots of those. With jet fuel for downed helicopters, land mines, explosives, etc. All of it rattling around in the vehicle with him as he sped through rough jungle roads. No wonder they threw men like him into forrest fires in California when he got home. No one was crazy enough to go into the blazing inferno where they freely drove knowing one much worse was behind them.
He was 17 when he enlisted. 18 when he went. Stayed over a year there. Came home and bravely battled on to protect and serve for many others before his contract with the Marine Corps was over.
His oldest daughter was born the month he deployed.
He sold his uniform when he came home.
Many pictures he had sent home were destroyed while he was still away.
I grew up knowing hardly a thing. I learned more today than I have ever known. I always knew one thing, though. I’m proud to be his daughter.
I always was. I always will be.
He doesn’t have to tell me one thing about that war. His behavior and actions every day that I’ve known him are more than enough proof of his honor, sense of duty, and his selflessness.
What he’s seen. What he’s been through. Only those who served alongside him will ever know about that. I just know he came home and rose above. He fought on. He didn’t let the unthinkable destroy any part of him. I’m sure he was lost for awhile. He was so young. But, the man I’ve always known has served me with a dignity, integrity, and intelligence that is truly uncommon in this world.
Thank God he isn’t on that wall. Thank all of you who ended up on it for sacrificing every piece of yourselves.
He said one thing to someone who thanked him for his service while we were there that I won’t soon forget.
While many men walked the street with veterans hats and even uniforms, my father felt no need to let anyone know who he was. I made mention of his service to a man who handed me a pamphlet to see if there was a way to find military members from Minnesota. As he walked away and thanked my father, dad said one simple thing that truly changed me.
“I would do it all again.”