We were unsuccessful though in finding two of Jim’s classmates killed while serving their country during the Vietnam War. There is a method to the madness of all those names, but not when it came to figuring out how to spell the Polish names of Jimmy's long-ago, grammar-school buddies.
There wasn’t a single male college student back then who didn’t know his draft number; or know of a draft dodger (an estimated 70,000 draft dodgers fled to Canada). Jimmy’s number was 264.
When the Kent State shootings occurred in May of 1970, I was a college sophomore. That college protest more than any other came to symbolize the political and social divisions that so sharply divided the country during the almost thirty years encompassing what’s known as the Vietnam War era. It was an ugly, costly war, one in which the average citizen reviled the war and in turn, those who had fought in it.
Politics aside, more than 3 million people on both sides were killed in the Vietnam War; U.S. casualties numbered more than 50,000. At last count there were 58,282 names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C., the same on the Moving Wall Jim and I got a chance to see Saturday.
Veteran Memorial Fund organization, began touring in 1996.
When John Devitt attended the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1982, he was unemployed. Friends and family had raised the money to fly him from his home town in California to Washington, D.C. He’d been drifting between jobs since his discharge from the Army in 1969, dealing with violent temper flares, bad dreams, the sweats, and the boredom of going from an intense adrenaline-pumping existence to normal life. John, like most Vietnam vets, basically managed a very modest life on his own in a society that wanted to forget the Vietnam War and the 7 million vets who were such painful reminders of a war in which neither supporters nor opponents had seen victory.
John didn’t expect he’d like the Memorial. Media coverage leading up to the dedication had included scathing descriptions of the v-shaped wall as “a nihilistic slab of stone” by fellow Vietnam veteran Jim Webb. Webb later became a U.S. Senator. On more than one occasion 21-year-old Yale University student Maya Lin’s winning design had been referred to as “the black gash of shame.”
John walked away from his introduction to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial during that dedication feeling empowered; like a weight had been lifted from his soul.
"I walked up to The Wall and I felt this intense pride," John said of his visit to the Wall. "I hadn’t felt that since the day I left Vietnam. It was one thing nobody had mentioned in the twelve years I’d been home. Everybody talked about guilt. I had tried guilt and it didn’t work. I was very proud of the guys I was with and especially the ones who were killed. You can’t give more than that. I was so glad to see their names out there in the public."
Using personal finances and donations, John founded Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd and set out with fellow vets Norris Shears, Gerry Haver and a handful of other vets living in California to make his dream of a traveling Memorial Wall available to those who might not ever have the chance to go to D.C. to see the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.
I left Jimmy at the volunteer tent, where he was hoping to learn the location of the names of his classmates, and began my solitary walk along The Wall. There were only a handful of visitors at 9:30 in the morning.
The three-hundred feet of Astroturf leading up to the actual Wall was lined with quotes from Presidents John F. Kennedy and Calvin Coolidge, from General Patton, from Benjamin Franklin as well as from The Boy Scouts of America.
Artifacts were scattered up and down the length of The Moving Wall highlighting and thanking individuals behind the wall of names. One memento was dedicated to Corporal Norman P. Williams. His sacrifice had changed the life of a child later adopted by the man fighting alongside Corporal Williams who lived because of Williams’ actions.
There are 8 women and 16 chaplains listed on The Wall; 12 generals; 154 Medal of Honor recipients; 39 sets of brothers, 3 sets of fathers and sons; 226 Native American.
The 58,282 men and women honored on The Wall represent 22 different countries.
Twelve-hundred of the names listed represented those servicemen considered Missing In Action. A small cross appears next to their names. A diamond appears next to those servicemen and women who lost their lives during or as a result of activities related to the Vietnam War.
Moving wall has followed suit.
It’s common practice to read aloud the names of those 58,282 men and women while visitors are allowed access to The Moving Wall. The process usually takes about 72 hours and hundreds of volunteers. A veteran was given the honor during our 20-minute visit.
The Wall begins and ends on adjoining panels with the years 1959 and 1975 prominently displayed. The hope is that visitors come full circle when entering and then exiting The Wall and leave with a sense of healing.
I said good morning to both him and the woman walking with him, than took a moment to thank him for his service to our country. He smiled, then nodded before moving on.
Jimmy and I moved on to the Healing Field where 2,013 flags had been erected. Is was a beautiful sight, all those commemorative flags flying in honor of our veterans lost in service to their country; a very moving and fitting display of patriotism for this Veterans Day.