I learned that when I passed the Disabled American Veteran's National Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I felt it in my eyes.... and those feelings had been a long time gone.
In Washington, DC, The Wall lists the names of the 58,000+ who died in America's longest war. Collectively, they tell their stories in silent screams. We have individual experiences at The Wall, but the end result is still one of the enormity and the totality of the loss. At Angel Fire, the memorial strives to collect the pictures and biographical sketches of the dead. The result is a series of very personal, individual stories.
The one that brought me there was just one of many.
I arrived at the memorial on a Saturday with friends I knew well, but had never met until that weekend. Twenty-some members of VWAR-L, a discussion group on the Internet, gathered that weekend to honor the dead and the living. And, with a little luck, to exorcise some demons. These friends knew my personal demon, that thing that has been on my shoulder for nearly 30 years, frequently reminding me of its presence. And, for the most part, I knew of theirs. We all have them. Every one of us.
The memorial has two main parts and we went first to the visitor's center. Artifacts and remembrances of the Vietnam War fill the center. In doing so, it fills you. In one room, there is a large computer which holds the stories of the war and of the dead. I settled down and began to work it, poking through its maze, but avoiding that one particular corridor. The memorial's director asked me if there was someone I wanted to look up. Seeing me shake my head, she gently touched me and said, "Maybe later."
That's when I knew here was a place where they understood. People that understand have been all too rare a find since 1967.
In another part of the room was Dr. Victor Westphall, a person whose demon is, in a way, the memorial itself. He started its construction in 1968 following the death of his son in Vietnam. He channeled his pain into something that at least lets others heal. My guess is that he treats this as his penance for some unknown or long forgotten sin. We get more out of it than he, but at 82 years old he has no choice in the matter. This is now his life. And it helps.
A few yards away from the visitor's center is the chapel and our real purpose for being here. The service began there at 9:30. We were seated in tiers as we waited with uncertainty. The staff began this monthly ceremony - the changing of the pictures - and acknowledged the presence of our group. And then the names were called.
One by one, twelve pictures were placed on the wall of the chapel to join Dr. Westphall's son. As the names were read and the pictures placed, a book was passed around so those of us in the small crowd could read aloud a short biography of each honored warrior.
Nine of the names read that morning came from New Hampshire. Three came from our group.
When his name was announced, it was my job first to place his picture on the wall. He looked great there next to his fallen comrades. They wore their military uniforms; he was in a Bend baseball uniform. I then returned to my seat and began to read a biography I myself had written: "Bill Koho played baseball....."
I have some practice at these things. Public speaking comes easily to me. So does masking emotions. "...He was a joy to watch at Center Field or at the plate." I really thought I'd make it through unscathed again, without revealing what was really churning inside me. I'd done it so many times before. I read of baseball and Marines. "When he was returned to his unit, he extended his tour of duty for 3 months...." Yep, almost done. I was going to do it again. "Had he not done that he would have made it home." Um, something is going wrong here. "Instead...." There was that feeling in my eyes again. Strange, wasn't there a time I knew what it was? "Instead...." It's not going to work this time.
I felt hands on all sides of me touching, giving me assurance. It was OK. I felt something else, too. Something different. Something running down my cheeks. But it really was OK this time. I didn't have to swallow it back down. I didn't have to hide it. I didn't have to do anything but finish reading. "Instead, on the evening of March 14, 1967, as he headed out to a night ambush site, the Marine directly in front of him tripped a bouncing betty. Bill was killed instantly."
"He died doing something he liked; something he believed in."
It was done. But the healing was only now beginning. At Angel Fire, I learned that you can't heal - you can't get better - unless you want to and you're willing to expose some of yourself in the process.
In 1956, Bill taught me that boys don't cry. In 1995, he taught me that, in order to heal, we sometimes have to.
And I always listen to my big brother.