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Talking To A Wall
By Mike Smith | Published  05/15/2006 | Reflections | Rating:
Mike Smith
Mike Smith Served Active Duty 1969-1972. 

View all articles by Mike Smith
Talking To A Wall

Talking to some people is like talking to a wall: a shiny black wall with names carved into it.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is a black granite wall engraved with the names of each of the 58,245 U.S. servicemen who were killed in Vietnam from October, 1957 to May, 1975. Each of the 140 granite slabs is polished to a mirror finish so that, as visitors look into the engraved names, they will see the reflection of themselves. The names of the dead are not organized by rank or alphabet. They are listed in chronological order of their deaths.

Each time I have gone to The Wall. I have been struck by the quiet reverence shown by virtually every visitor. Many people are visibly shaken as they approach for the first time. Time does not exist there. The collective soul of America, scarred, bloodied, broken, bruised, is bared at The Wall. The raw nerves, the sinew, the marrow of America stands exposed in the reflection of each of us. Whether they want to or not, each visitor is forced to examine himself, his life, his accomplishments, his soul. And each walks away humbled.

An aging mother searches that vast sea of names, hoping to find her lost son, yet also hoping that he is not there, that this whole thing was just a mistake and her little boy will soon come home. She scans the lines of names, hopefully, but frightened. Then, there he is. A chill goes through every nerve, every muscle, every fiber of her soul. She reaches out to her child and he reaches back to her. The act of touching his name is involuntary, as pre-ordained as the turning of the earth. So are the tears. At the base of his panel she sometimes leaves a flower, sometimes a flag, sometimes a letter to him. But always, always, she leaves a mother's tears.

A middle-aged man sits on a bench a hundred yards from The Wall, studying it, staring through it. He is aware of the other people standing in front of the long black memory, but that is not what he sees. He is looking through the reflection of The Wall many miles, many years, away. He is young again and with his buddies. So many memories wash over him all at the same time that he can only look at each one fleetingly before moving on to the next. Maybe a smile about that stupid prank they pulled. The way they helped each other through the tough times. The last time he saw his buddy.

He, too, will touch the name of each of his buddies, and they will reach out of The Wall to touch him yet again. He, too, will leave something at the base of The Wall; a beer, a medal, a picture. Sometimes he will be able to leave a lifetime of guilt. But always, always, a warrior's tears.

Another Mom searches The Wall for the name of a man she never knew. Her children, now grown, look for their Grandfather. As they each touch his name, the kids finally start to understand why their Mom had to come here. They read the POW bracelets and wonder about the medals and lighters and smokes and letters to buddies and sons and fathers. They begin to understand about all those old guys staring into The Wall with tears in their eyes. The old guys hope the kids will never have to fully understand that there are always, always, a daughter's tears.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial lists the names of the dead, but war memorials are not built for the dead. They are built for the living. It is appropriate that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a wall : black, stark, simple yet complex, painful yet cathartic; a wall that forces us to stop and reflect. What we see in The Wall is ourselves. Whether we see survivor's guilt, or a broken heart, or pride, we are looking at the best of America. When we talk to the memory of a son, or a Dad, or a buddy, we are speaking absolute truth. When we reach out to touch The Wall, The Wall reaches out and touches us. When we look deep into The Wall we are looking at heroes who have given everything. We are looking at the soul of America.

Just as we each leave something at The Wall, The Wall leaves something with each of us. At the base of The Wall we each leave a little bit of guilt. The Wall leaves us with a reflection of ourselves, and always, always, a nation's tears.

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  • Comment #1 (Posted by Skip Haswell)
    MIKE, That was outstanding!!!!! We have a Memorial Service coming up and I wonder if I could use what YOU wrote giving you full credit. If this is possible please e mail me info about you so I may give full credit......Thanks/ and WELCOME HOME!!!!!
  • Comment #2 (Posted by Walt & Val Egge)
    It was many years before we could visit the wall. My husband had been a D.I. and put many of those boys thru' boot camp at Parris Island. One of his fellow D.I.'s name was the first he visited and neither of us could speak, our throats were so constricted. One cannot visit that place without crying.
  • Comment #3 (Posted by Dale Parrish)
    Mike we never have been to DC. to see it but have seen the travling wall and it does the same thing to those that see it. It does leave a person with a new perspective on what the Vietnam Veterans have done and gone thru.
  • Comment #4 (Posted by Ken Jarvis, CAPT, USNR (ret))
    I appreciate the eloquence of Mikes words and having served two enlisted tours in Nam I feel a kinship. We dont have to know one anotherwe were just there together. Thats enough.

    But I have a problem with the wall. I dont mind its existence. To the contrary. It is everything Mike said it is. But there is so little there to celebrate the livingto tell of what we tried to accomplish.

    We went over there to help a country in its battle for freedom. That some its leaders were corruptthat some our leaders were indecisive and not always motivated by righteous objectives was not our fault. We gave it our alland some gave their all.

    I wish more would be written about the victorieseven if they happen to be the small, personal ones. Every now and again I run into Vietnamese now living in our country. When they find out I served over there, they smile and ask when. I tell them and they get very quiet. They dont have to say muchI can feel the affection. They care. Theyre grateful for what we didor tried to do. It didnt work but they know we tried.

    I just wish America didnt always associate the Vietnam war with failure. No American who every left his or her homeland to defend someone else was a failure.

  • Comment #5 (Posted by Robert L. Mercer)
    I have never visited the Wall although I have found excuses not to go. I was with 2/4 fox Company in 1967 and 1968. Many of my brothers names are on the wall. We are having a reunion in Quantico July of this year, and for the first time in 38 years, I will visit my brothers at the wall with all the rest of 2/4 for the first time. I get tear in my eye just thinking of all the blood and sacrifice that wall represents, so I will try to compose myself when I am there thinking of the many times we were all togther.
    Simper Fi
  • Comment #6 (Posted by Ricardo Jacques)
    Thanks for your words on the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial and what it does to us.
    It does more than reflect your image, it reflects what we really are.
    And the loss of 58,000 Americans...

    Semper Fidelis
  • Comment #7 (Posted by (Former) LCpl Dee Jack)
    9-20-95 TODAY I VISITED "THE WALL" " Father that I never knew, Son I loved so dearly, Lover who left me behind, Brother that shared my life. Sleep gently Sweetheart, My heart is broken forever. Two walls of black won't bring you back; They always remind me you're gone. They say "The Wall" has healed this country, But it hasn't healed my broken heart. As long as its' there, year after year - We'll always be far apart. " Semper Fidelis !
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