"I came to see my son's name."

Copyright 1996-2004 Jim Schueckler

      "I came to see my son's name." Those or similar words are on the lips, minds, and hearts of people who journey to see their "special name" on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the "Wall", in Washington, DC. But this wasn't the real Wall and this wasn’t our nation’s capital, this was The Moving Wall, in Batavia, New York for a week. The half-sized replica of the Wall has been visiting the cities and small towns of those named upon it since 1984.

      As a volunteer at The Moving Wall, my duties were the same as I had learned as a National Park Service volunteer at the real Wall: to help people find their "special name" and help make name rubbings. However, my Park Service volunteer mentor had taught me we could also provide a much more valuable service to visitors, to give them the opportunity to talk about the person behind the name.

      While searching the directory or leading a visitor to the name they sought, I would quietly ask "Was he a friend or a relative?" Over the six days, I began conversations that way with several hundred people. Only a handful gave me a short answer; almost everyone wanted to talk. Each had their own story to tell. For some, the words poured out as if the floodgates of a dam that had been closed for thirty years had just burst open. For others, the words came out slowly and deliberately between long pauses. Sometimes, they choked on the words and they cried. I also cried as I listened, asked more questions, and silently prayed that my words would help to heal, not to hurt.

      Our culture mourns and respects our dead, but in the shadow of that bitter war, the sacrifices of those who died and their families were not allowed to have dignity. They died in a war that some Americans had blamed on the soldiers who were called to fight it. Mothers and fathers came to see that their sons had not been forgotten; that their names were remembered on that Wall; that someone else cares.

      A frail and elderly mother came to The Moving Wall in a wheelchair. As we looked for her son's name, she described his interests during high school, and then the agonizing days when she was first told that her son was injured, then missing, then classified as "lost at sea." Not even his remains came back home.

      "'Til death do us part" came abruptly to thousands of marriages because of that war. I met two widows of men whose names are on the Wall. One woman showed me a picture of her husband and separate picture of their daughter -- a daughter that her husband never met -- a girl who grew up without a father. I was painfully aware that had some Viet Cong soldiers been slightly better marksmen, my wife and son might have come to the Wall to see my name.

      Sisters and brothers came to see a name. One brother so close in age that "People were always calling us by each other’s name, and we both hated it." A sister said "I was so much younger than my brother I didn't realize why my Mom was crying when we said goodbye to him at the airport."

      A group of four people stood near one panel. I offered to make a rubbing of a name. The man pointed to the name Paul D. Urquhart.

      I asked "Is that Captain Paul Urquhart, the helicopter pilot?"

      The man nodded and said "He's my brother."

      I explained that I flew with Paul on his first tour in Vietnam and read that he had been shot down during his second tour. Paul's brother said that he and his family came from Pennsylvania on the anniversary date of Paul's becoming Missing In Action. I made a rubbing of Paul's name and added a rubbing of the Army Aviator wings from my hat, a symbol his brother and I had worn so proudly so long ago.

      Aunts and uncles also came to see a special name on the Wall. One aunt said "He stayed overnight at our house so much that one neighbor thought he was our son."

      An uncle lamented: "I took him hunting. I was the one who taught him to like guns."

      Cousins came to the Wall, and many said "He was like a brother."

      One man asked me to look up the name Douglas Smith. I asked back, "Do you mean Doug Smith, a Marine, from North Tonawanda?" The man introduced me to his wife, Doug's cousin. She was pleased to be able to talk about Doug with a classmate who remembered him.

      Veterans came to see the names of their buddies. Most of them were eager to tell me about their friend or how he died. Many remembered the day in great detail; and spoke of what's called survivor guilt.

      "He went out on patrol in my place that day." Or "If I hadn't been away on R & R [rest and recuperation], he wouldn't be dead."

      Others were bothered that they couldn't remember much about their friend because they had tried to "block it out" for so many years. Another man said "I lost a few good friends while I was there (Vietnam), but I don't want to find just their names, because I feel the same about all 58,000 of these names."

      Many people came to the Wall in the privacy or serenity of darkness. Our security volunteers reported that there were only a few minutes each night that the Wall had no callers at all. One visitor spent several hours in the middle of the night standing in front of a certain panel. Whenever anyone came close, he would move away. When alone again, he would move back to that panel to continue his silent vigil. Still others came in the darkness before dawn to watch the break of a new day over the Wall.

      Many people came who were not related, but knew one or more of the men named on the Wall. A high school teacher told me "I taught four of these boys."

      Others said,

      "He was the little boy who lived across the street."

      "We were going steady in high school."

      "He delivered my newspapers."

      "I was his Boy Scout leader."

      "He went to our church."

      "I worked with his mother at the time he was killed."

      "My son played football with him."

      "We were classmates for twelve years."

      There were hundreds of similar personal connections between the visitor and one or more names on the Wall.

      Two weeks after the visit of The Moving Wall to Batavia, a friend told my wife "I don't understand all the concern about the Moving Wall; why don't people just forget about that dirty war?"

      For many, The Moving Wall does not need to be explained. Those who do not understand are, perhaps, more fortunate than those who do.


(The author is the founder of The Virtual Wall®, www.VirtualWall.org)

For permission to reprint this essay, contact Jim Schueckler at Jim@VirtualWall.org

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