The Wall has come to the local area, a little too early for the Fourth of July. No, this wasn’t a reenactment of Pink Floyd’s wonderful rock opera — this was the moving Wall, the mobile Viet Nam Veterans’ War Memorial. The Indian Trail VFW post hosted the memorial in the middle of June. Susan went and took our grandson. It was, she said, quite a display. I didn’t go myself. I’ve never been to see it — not the real one in Washington nor either of the two, 3/5ths size mobile ones that tour the country. I’ve never really come to terms with the Wall. As I think I mentioned in one of these columns earlier, this year marks the fortieth anniversary of my tour in Viet Nam. When I came back to the United States in August of 1972, it was to a country where many of the citizens were angry about the war and seemed determined to take that anger out on the returning soldiers because they couldn’t get to the politicians. Purely personal opinion, of course, but I think they should have tried harder to get to the politicians. The crowds seemed to want the armed forces to have taken it upon themselves to stop obeying the civilian leadership of the country. From a historical standpoint, that has never worked out well. Armed forces, especially armies, tend to be very conservative and usually are of the collective opinion that if you have enough energy to riot, you have enough energy to serve your country in the army. Anyway, coming home was rough on many servicemen returning from Viet Nam. No parades for us. People expressed themselves by spitting on, screaming obscenities at, and even attacking returning servicemen. We went to that war as individuals, we came home as individuals, and it looked for awhile as if the only memorial we’d ever get was the cross that marked our own grave.
Now, I tell you this as it was told to me by those who had to live through it. I didn’t. I came home to North Carolina and North Carolina has a tradition of welcoming home its soldiers, win, lose or draw. I flew in to Charlotte Douglas in uniform — my class A Greens — and went to church that Sunday in my dress blues. No one at any place for that entire thirty days of leave had an unkind gesture or word. The only gesture people made was to shake my hand. Their only words were words of welcome. I cannot begin to tell you how far such gestures and words went to get the healing process started, and I have never been gladder, or prouder, to call North Carolina my home. When I went to my first duty station after coming home, I was shocked at the trials some of my friends had endured at their homecomings. For a long time, that seemed like the way things would be between the country and the Viet Nam veterans. The vet learned to cope or went crazy — all individual effort.
Finally, after ten years, during which time the small country for which so many of us had given so much went completely down the tubes, we were given a memorial: the Black Boomerang. At the time , it felt to me that the memorial wasn’t given so much to honor the veterans as it was to assuage a nation’s guilt at how those vets were treated in their own country. I had made my peace with the events of that time and the people from my home in North Carolina didn’t have anything to feel guilty about so I didn’t feel a real close connection to or need of the Wall. However, many, many did — from both sides of the national conflict — and in the years since it was built, it has provided much needed healing for them. It has provided, also, a focal point for the treatment of soldiers. In the conflicts since then, soldiers have been deployed as a part of their units rather than the insanity of sending men in as individuals. Additionally, the citizens opposed to those conflicts haven’t been taking out their anger on the soldiers. All of these are good things. In a way, the Wall has come to function as a rainbow: a promise that what was done before will not be done again. Perhaps for me, that realization constitutes coming to terms.
I’m going to ask you to do something for me, if you get the chance. I made a promise in the darker days after Viet Nam that the two men from my flight school section who died in Viet Nam would not be forgotten as long as I lived. You’ve heard their names repeated during our Memorial Day prayers for the last few years. If you have no one on the Wall to remember, I ask you to remember them. If you get the chance, because you’re in Washington or because one of the moving Walls is in your area, seek out the names of John J. Miller Jr. and John M. Hiebert. They are both on panel 02W. John Miller died on September 24, 1971 and is on line 25. John Hiebert died on December 2, 1971 and is on line 82. Make rubbings of both names and remember them as two good men who were killed in helicopter crashes while serving our country. Each Memorial Day, close your eyes and say a prayer for them. Remember them as long as you can. Thank you.
~ Kurt Hendrix