By James E. Leiker
I took the advice of several on-line acquaintances and called someone before I went to the Wall. FO3 3(Bruce) lives in the DC area. Bruce got a call from me at 2:00 p.m. on the Sunday afternoon. He dropped all that he was doing, woke up his wife, and drove 30 minutes on his Harley to meet me at 20th and Constitution. These two caring people then guided me through the next few hours of memories and pain.
We approached the Wall from the area of the Memorial to the women who served in Vietnam. This is a powerful statue that accurately depicts the look of pain frequently seen on the face of many of the nurses who served in Vietnam. I believe that they felt nearly as much pain as the people they were treating.
From the perspective of this area, the Wall comes out visually to you in pieces. You see it through a scattered tree line. First impressions were that the ground just sank and left the sheer black faced wall exposed. It truly looks as though it is a natural part of the landscape and had been there forever.
We slowly walked to the left side of the Wall as you face it. There you come to the statue to the Vietnam Veterans. Three men depicted standing as if they had just return from a patrol. This statue was so lifelike that you would swear that the sculptor had just dipped these three guys in bronze. As I stared into the faces of the statue I could almost believe that these guys were very hot and tired just standing there. It's still a powerful picture in my mind.
Now that the preliminaries were over, the moment of truth was here. I stood at the left side of the monument for a few moments and tried to capture all of my feelings. I was apprehensive. About what I do not know. I was in awe. The size of the Wall is enormous. I was determined. I could handle this, no sweat.
The Wall was stretched out before me like a giant wing. I started walking into the Memorial and began reading names, all those names. Names, names, and more names began to fill my mind. First just a few. Like the first few panels with only a few names on it. The deeper I walked into the Memorial the more names began to surround and envelop me. That tiny little piece of the wall I passed a few yards back had grown to be the same height as I was. The panels kept getting bigger and the volume of names keep growing.
About halfway down the first side of the Wall, I grabbed for my first crutch. I'd brought a list of names with me. I had panel and line numbers all ready. Once I had something to do besides look at all those names, I'd be OK. You know, just get busy and don't think about it. With the help of a park ranger. I got a half dozen sheets of the rubbing paper and borrowed a piece of lead. I was OK now; I had something to do. Bruce and his wife helped me find the names, and I dutifully rubbed them one by one. Several were at the request of others. Several were for me.
The first of the names I was looking for was for a man I didn't expect to find listed on the Wall. We called him Blue, and his name is not important here. Blue had been our battery armorer. Blue had been a fairly good friend of mine. Blue was a short timer. He only had about a month to go on his tour and had been refused an extension. Blue was from a strict Mormon family. Blue was scared.
You see, for 10 months, Blue had been doing speed. He had wanted the extension to dry out slowly before going back to the World. He wasn't wanted in country because of his known but not proven drug problem. He knew he wouldn't be wanted at home if he had a drug problem.
Blue started taking number 10s, a heavy downer, to get right. One Sunday afternoon, Blue lost it. After a couple of drinks, he cut up two guys with a can opener and went into a screaming rage. It took six of us to get him under control. He was kept in the FDC hooch until he could be choppered out in the morning.
Sometime between 11:00 p.m. and 12:00 p.m., Blue got right. Blue hung himself with the strap from a 45 shoulder holster. I was supposed to be guarding him. I'll never forgive him for that. I found him and tried in vain to bring his deep purple face back to life.
I had for years thought that he was not on the Wall. Just two days before this trip, I had found his name. I'd been misspelling it for years. He has been listed as an accidental self destruction. I guess that fits.
Blue's name was higher up the wall than I could reach. A park ranger brought a ladder and did the rubbing for me. As I looked up at the name as it appeared on that piece of paper, the setting sun reflecting off the Wall was making it hard to see. The more of Blue's name that appeared the less I could see. And then the tears came.
I couldn't believe that I was crying. I was mad. I was hurt. I was ashamed. And Blue was gone. Blue and so many others.
Suddenly, the names were no longer names. They were people. The enormity of the Wall and the loss engulfed me. The next thing that I knew I was being held by Bruce and his wife. I felt no shame at the spectacle I must have presented.
After a few minutes and a few more rubbings, we continued to the other end of the Wall. As I exited the Memorial and the Wall became smaller, I felt released by its hold.
At the other end, I turned and looked back over the path I had just walked. The wing shape of the Wall looked different to me. I could now see two arms open wide waiting to hold me. Damn, it felt good to know that someone cared.
Over the next week, I went back to the Wall several more times for one reason or another. I now felt like I belonged. A piece of myself was at this hallowed place. It will remain a part of me for the rest of my life, and that ain't bad. I was home. Welcome to the World.