“The Wall” in Washington DC is a sacred place to Vietnam veterans. Built with private funds and spearheaded by ex-enlisted man Jan Scruggs, it represents all that has come to be known as the Vietnam era. This is hallowed ground for all those who went to war in Vietnam and who left their youth and many of their buddies behind there.
On Veterans Day in 1993, the President and the Commander-in-Chief of the United States did the right thing, he went to “The Wall” and paid his respects to the nearly 58,000 Americans enshrined on the dark granite, and to those veterans who survived to return to a divided and seemingly ungrateful country.
Some vets resented President Clinton coming to their holy of holies. They felt he had not earned the right to be there. Some said, “I went and he didn’t. My buddies went and now they are names on ‘The Wall’ instead of having careers and wives and kids. Now, this draft-dodger, this non-combatant, is here defiling these grounds paid for in American blood. How can he be Commander in Chief when he never served, not even as a Private?”
Two decades had come and gone, but not the deep-seated acid-anger seethed in some of the Vietnam vets.
Seeing the ragtag bits of uniform worn by the vets at “The Wall” flashed me back to an event that happened over 20 years before on this same Mall where the Vietnam Memorial now stands.
The year was 1972 and a group calling themselves Vietnam Veterans Against Foreign Wars (VVAFW) showed up 15,000 strong and set up a tent bivouac on the Mall in front of the Capitol Building. These were no wild-eyed, radical, long-haired, draft-dodging hippies. These were bemedaled veterans of the Vietnam war who had fought some of the most horrifying battles in the history of America. They had faithfully served their nation in combat and now they were met at their nation’s Capitol to protest this non-war/war that was continuing to kill and maim their generation in that killing field they called “The Nam.”
Federal workers watched in amazement as squads of vets, armed with toy guns and dressed in bits of uniforms, once worn proudly, now ran mock search-and-destroy missions up the steps of Federal buildings and across the grass of the Mall. They were shocked to see these heroes removing their medals and tossing them over the temporary fence hastily thrown up around the Capitol.
“Why are these men throwing away their honors?” they asked. The rest of the nation asked the same question.
Some senators and congressmen came out to mingle with these returned warriors. Some even went up on the platform to give speeches.
At the time I was working for the Red Cross as a disaster relief coordinator. I had been a Lance Corporal in the Marine Reserves, had spent two years in the mountains of Colombia, South America, as a Peace Corps community development volunteer and I was greatly confused about the war and curious to hear what these protesting war veterans had to say. The had walked the walk and they could talk the talk. I was there to listen.
By 1972, the fighting had already gone on for more than a decade and there still was “no light at the end of the tunnel.” By now there were hundreds of thousands of angry and disillusioned vets. There were millions of angry and active anti-war protesters. The country was being divided by massive anti-war demonstrations.
A friend of mine, who had been a forward observer with the 101st Airborne and had fought in the Tet offensive, said to me one night, “they don’t seem to be running that war to win. Body counts is what they’re into… BODY COUNTS and not real estate. That’s no way to fight a war. Hell I don’t even know what I was fighting for… except to stay alive!”
A speaker got on the PA system and asked for a volunteer driver to take some of the VVAFW guys out to the giant Walter Reed Hospital to donate blood. Blood is about neutral, so I went over and volunteered my red Mustang convertible for their use.
Five vets piled in and, with the top down, we set off across Washington to donate blood. A former Marine, three ex-Army guys and a former Lieutenant from the Coast Guard. They talked about old units and where they had served in “The Nam.”
It was shortly before five when we pulled into a parking space at Walter Reed. We were between the two story wings that housed the blood-bank. A young 2nd Lieutenant on duty freaked out to see this potentially explosive political event happening on his watch. He started giving reasons why we shouldn’t give blood.
“Are you telling me that just because we are protesting this war, our blood is no longer any good?” said the former Coast Guard Lieutenant.
“No, I’m not saying that,” stammered the rattled 2nd Lieutenant, “it’s just that… that…” He held up his hand and dialed a number to reach his superior.
Two of the vets and I went back outside to the car. We stood smoking and discussing the 2nd Lieutenant’s reaction.
Above us, on the second floor of the wing behind us, faces of wounded soldiers started showing at the windows. They, of course, had been keeping track of the VVAFW thing on TV and couldn’t believe that some of them were right there at their hospital. They didn’t like it one little bit. They deeply resented it.
“Hey you Communists,” shouted one of the patients, “what are you doing here?”
“Get out of here you pinkos,” shouted another.
“F__k you,” shouted yet another.
Soon all the wounded vets were yelling and shooting the bird at us.
“Get out of here, you F___ing traitors!” came another angry shout.
A nurse Captain, in her starched white uniform, came running out of a side door and up to us. “What are you people doing here? You’re upsetting the troops. I want you out of here — NOW.”
“We came to give blood to our brothers,” said one of the VVAFW guys.
The nurse was dumbfounded. She said not another word. She whirled and quickly disappeared back through the same door she had come out of.
The heads at the windows above turned to get the word from her, then turned to look back down on us. The rest of the VVAFW guys, by now, had come out from the blood bank with appointments to give blood the following day. The two groups of vets stood looking at one another. There was total silence. Then, from one of the windows above I heard, “Right on,” spoken quietly.
Then came more “Right ons,” but louder now.
Then I heard a shouted, “Right on, Brother!”
Soon both groups of vets were shouting “Right ons,” and shaking upraised fists at each other, but these were the right-on-good kind of shaking fists.
We piled into the convertible and drove away to the fading shouts of the wounded vets. I tried to hide the tears in my eyes.
So, 20 years later, the non-veteran Commander-in-Chief and some veterans and through the TV, all of us, met at “The Wall,” and perhaps put some much needed medicine on the still open wound that is known as “The Nam.”