By Deanna Gail Shlee
At the opening afternoon session, the president of a Tucson, Arizona, chapter of PTK challenged the other chapters to an all night vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall) to bring notice to the handicapped -- not only Veterans but all disabled. Feeling that I was doing something worthwhile, I decided to go; and, as I had never been to Washington, I was anxious to see the Memorial.
When the evening session ended, I met the Tucson president, herself disabled by the loss of a leg in a motorcycle accident, at the entrance of the hotel where we were staying. Another woman joined us, and I learned she was an advisor to a PTK chapter in Oklahoma. She also had been a nurse in Vietnam.
The three of us took a taxi to Constitution Gardens where the Memorial stands, arriving around 10:30 p.m. Other chapter delegates from the convention were already there. As I walked up to the Memorial, I was very surprised to find it starting beneath my feet and consisting of two sides.
The Wall stands near the Lincoln Memorial and faces the Washington Monument.
The panels are upright and laid against the cut out earth forming two long walls that meet at an angle of 125 degrees. At the beginning of each wall, the panels are only inches in height,
but they rise to over ten feet where the two walls meet. Its smooth, mirror-like finish reflects the lighted Memorial and Monument nearby, the surrounding trees and lawn,
and the people who come to search its face.
At the entrance of one wall is a larger-than-life sculpture of three, armed Warriors in field uniforms looking into the Vietnam Memorial.
A large United States flag flies over them continually from a high staff. I was struck by how young the faces appeared with their look of apprehension but readiness recorded in bronze.
Books on stands by this sculpture list the names on The Wall in alphabetical order and on what panel and line they can be found. I learned from the Tucson president that her husband had served in Vietnam; and, between them, they knew twenty-five names inscribed on the dark granite walls. She had brought paper and pencil to get "rubbings" of these names for herself and her husband; he, as yet, could not bring himself to visit The Wall.
A young woman was sitting on the ground before a panel of names. She was crying and would get up now and then to lean against the panel as if trying to embrace it. At first, I thought she had a loved one listed there; but then I heard her say, "I feel so alone -- so left out -- I know no one here." (The Wall does that to you.)
The Tucson president turned to me and said, "She does not know how lucky she is."
The other woman who had ridden with us from the hotel, the nurse, was standing away from the Memorial, clutching the rubbing paper in her hand. Tears slid down her face. She could not bring herself to walk down the brick path in front of the Memorial and take the imprint of the one she knew from its immortal place. (The Wall does that to you, too.)
I wondered if it was another nurse or soldier she had known. I could not bring myself to ask. Later in this vigil, I saw her by herself against a panel with her paper and pencil. I hope somehow that helped, that The Wall could do that, too.
As the night passed, groups of people came and went. Some were from the convention; some we did not know. Candles had been passed out and placed before the panels. Their bright glow brought reverence to the Memorial and some quiet for my troubled thoughts. At 3:00 a.m., the Tucson president and I were alone; and, to keep warm, we sat on the lights in the ground that gently illuminated The Wall.
Suddenly, something called my attention to the front of the Memorial where the sculpture stands. As I was looking up into the bright lights surrounding the sculpture from the relative darkness where we sat, all that was visible to me was the dark outline of a figure standing very still in this still hour.
I was startled as I could feel his gaze upon us, and he seemed to suspend his movements as if deciding what to do. Then he slowly came down the path with a halting gait. As he came closer, I could see that he was wearing a black beret and some sort of big, military jacket. His features came within our candlelight, and I saw a strong face with a full salt and pepper beard. He asked if he could join us, and the Tucson president said, "Sure."
With some difficulty, he stretched out on the path beside us. He had been drinking -- he said he had to, to be able to come here. (I imagine The Wall does that a lot.)
He started to shake and cry and curse The Wall; he felt if he had only done more -- just a little bit more -- it would have made a difference, that some of those names would not be there. My mind said that he was wrong, that I was sure he had done all he could; but I could not speak. Somehow I knew it wouldn't do any good. He felt he should have been up on The Wall with the others -- I knew he should not. (I prayed The Wall would give him peace.)
We learned that he had been a Marine, had done three tours of duty -- had been hit three times. He was with Wisconsin's First Chapter of Vietnam Vets, The Black Berets, and very proud of it. His conversation slowly changed to wife and kids and present things. His speech grew steady, even laughter came. We all were talking to each other then, and he said he had never seen The Wall look so beautiful.
He said this was easier than the first time he came -- the year the Memorial opened. He had come during the day then; maybe that was why he had come so late this night -- to be alone. I was glad he hadn't been alone. (Maybe The Wall arranged that, too.)
He finally left, and the Tucson president and I were alone the rest of the night. At 5:30 a.m. we walked out of the Gardens and took a taxi back to our hotel. We entered the quiet lobby just stirring with employees getting ready for the morning activities. I went to the hotel restaurant and brought back two cups of coffee. We sat together without talking, each to her own thoughts. I had gone to bring awareness to the disabled but had carried away with me more than I had anticipated. I finally rose, said my good-bye, and went up to my room.
This experience has been constantly on my mind since my return to Arizona after the convention was over. Before I left, I knew no one well directly connected with the Vietnam War. I had not lost a relative or friend; I can remember no close family or friend who had. I did not know the true politics or meaning of this war; if I did, what would it change -- what would it undo?
But I do know, now, some of the names on The Wall, some of the people who come to The Wall; and these are the things of importance: to respect those names, to understand those living -- touched by sorrow and a good measure from Hell. (That's what The Wall did to me.)