The Good by Wall
The cab pulled to the curd on Constitution Avenue. I looked out the window at a nondescript section of the Washington Mall, next to nothing, it seemed, but a sidewalk and some trees.
"Is this it?" I asked.
"Yup. It's over there," the driver said, pointing to a path that branched away from the sidewalk. I paid him, climbed out and stood on the sidewalk, mustering my courage. A Park Service sign said "Vietnam Veterans Memorial." I was finally here.
It had been 30 years since I served in Vietnam. I was a combat correspondent for the Army's 25th Infantry Division. Some of the dozen gentlemen in our public information unit were ardent patriots, others were reluctant draftees who openly questioned why we were there. We argued, but we bonded into an unbreakable brotherhood.
Now, our brotherhood had been dormant for three decades. I had never been to the wall, although it had been built many years before. It wasn't that I hoped to forget Vietnam. That would never happen. I had stayed away because I was afraid that one look at the wall would punch a hole in the dam I had built inside me - a fragile artifice I depended upon to hold back all of my unexpressed emotions about Vietnam: Grief, relief, sadness, guilt, unwanted insights into the flaws in my courage and character, and too much knowledge about the dark places inside us all. I wasn't sure what was behind the dam after all these years, but it felt huge.
As I walked, the path sloped downward until I was flanked on the right by the first, small slab of polished black stone. Several more steps and the wall grew taller, reaching chest level, eye level, then towering above my head, a sarcophagus of 140 granite panels. Nearby, another middle-aged man wept. His partner put her hand lightly on his back, but stayed a respectful distance behind him, letting him know she was there but leaving him to whatever process the wall had begun. I felt the dam straining inside me.
One by one, I found my people. Here on Panel 22E was the etched name of Thomas Duffy. We played football together in high school. Early in 1967, I learned that Porn was in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. On June 22, I tried to visit urn at a remote jungle encampment known as New Dak To. When I arrived, Porn's company was locked in a fire fight on a nearby hillside, the shooting so intense that choppers were unable to resupply the company with ammunition.
I sat on the airstrip through the long day and night, listening to the faint echoes of explosions and rifles. The next morning, reinforcements finally broke through and took control of the battlefield. Tom's unit, out of ammunition, had been virtually wiped out, 79 killed and 23 wounded. The posture of the bodies revealed that some had died fighting back to back, swinging their M-16s like clubs. In the night, the North Vietnamese had finished off the wounded by shooting them through the backs of their heads. Forty-three of the men died that way. Tom was 22 years old, in the country just four months. I have always been sure he was one of the people who went down swinging his rifle.
On Panel 28E, I found Capt. Riley Pitts, my commanding officer in Vietnam, as fine and honorable a person as I have ever met. After I left Vietnam, Pitts asked for command of an infantry company.
On Oct. 31, 1967, two weeks after his 30th birthday, Pitts and his company encountered intense resistance as they tried to reinforce another company. At one point, Pitts threw himself on a grenade to save his men, but the grenade failed to explode. He was killed later that day in fighting so heroic that he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
On Panel 18E, clustered close together, were David Fisher, Joseph Kramer and James Edwards, all comrades in our unit. Before dawn on April 10, 1967, our base camp at Cu Chi came under mortar attack. One round scored a direct hit on our bunker. Fisher, Kramer and Edwards, all between the ages of 21 and 23, were killed instantly. Several others were severely wounded. Ironically, I had been spared because I was in the jungle with the infantry while my friends had been killed at our "secure" base camp.
That was my history in Vietnam: 12 months of near misses, followed by the mystery and guilt of survival. There, but for a fraction of a second, a degree of trajectory, a different decision, went I. What did life want from me that it no longer required from Duffy and Pitts, Jimmy, Dave and Joe?
My dam didn't break that day. It broke later, one night while I talked to a young friend who was born well after Vietnam. She made an offhanded comment about how stupid the war had been and how stupid people must have been to serve in it. In that moment, I realized how utterly unable I was to make any outsider understand the personal circumstances that led each of us to that war. My impotence as a communicator, the incurable ignorance of people I loved and respected, the fact that they would never understand the value of the friends I lost and the sweetness of their lives - it all finally burst the dam. I began sobbing uncontrollably. I continued crying for a long time, vaguely aware that my young friend had left, probably to spare me embarrassment.
It was a healing moment, and the wall had played its part. I have gone back several times, and still wonder what gives this monument its cathartic power. Its granite arms stretch out like an offered embrace. Its engraved names guarantee immortality to the friends we lost and are determined to remember. It is a place built on the initiative of Vietnam vets, a gift to one another in a nation that was late welcoming them home.
It is a place where people leave flags, medals, flowers, letters - symbols of relationships that were broken forever, without goodbyes. So far, 25,000 objects have been left at the base of the wall, a tradition that started in 1982 even before the memorial was finished. The first offering was a Purple Heart thrown by a veteran into the wet cement of the memorial's foundation. Ever since, the wall has had the power to take our old wounds and entomb them. It is at once a wailing wall and a wall of dignity.
It remains a place of power that many Vietnam veterans, fearing their own catharses, still have been unable to visit. Some of them are the brothers with whom I served. I hope they take the cab ride some day. The wall heals, and I want that for them.
William S Becker 54, won a Bronze Star as a combat correspondent in Vietnam. He now lives in Golden, where he is director of the Denver Regional Office of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.