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March/April 2021 -   -  

The Wall, Then and Now

My Vietnam War was a mix of crushing heat and tremendous rains, long days working, and rocket and sapper attacks at our base. I worked as a clerk for the 47th Military History Detachment and later for the general staff at USARV HQ on Long Binh Post during my 1969-70 tour of duty.

When I came home, I never talked about the Army or Vietnam, except to family. Didn’t join any veterans group, and I struck my military service from my resume after managers balked at hiring me when they saw I was a Vietnam veteran.

So when I heard about the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, I was surprised at my desire to be there for the dedication of a memorial to the veterans of a war I never talked about. At the time I was freelancing as a news writer and producer for a local cable outlet. I obtained a press pass for the events.

I flew down from Boston that November 10, and went to the 2.8-acre memorial site on the National Mall. People were wandering all around—even above the black granite walls.

Many were making rubbings of loved ones’ names. The haunting theme music from Chariots of Fire gently played from large speakers. People were leaving photos, teddy bears, rosaries, and other mementos at the base of the Memorial. Crowds were milling around its granite wall, touching it, looking for names. I walked among the groups of veterans, hundreds of them, many dressed in fatigues.

I was taking photos and interviewing veterans from Massachusetts when I noticed a guy on crutches standing away from The Wall, back under some trees. His right foot was in a cast and he was wearing camo jungle fatigues and a faded boonie hat. He wore a Hawaii state flag shoulder patch on his left sleeve.

I asked him why he had come. He said he had wanted to see his buddies’ names, but he could not bring himself to get any closer to The Wall. “Too much hurt,” he said, and lumbered back among the trees.

A woman in faded jungle fatigues told me she was a former Army nurse stationed near my unit in Long Binh. She had worked at the 24th EVAC hospital. She said she came to see the names of the eight nurses who died in Vietnam. She told me that she had left nursing after her tour. “So many broken young men,” she said.

I went over to a volunteer and asked her for help to find my friend Mark’s name on The Wall. He and I were in Fort Benning Infantry Officers Candidate School together and became friends. Mark, like me, did not finish OCS. We both got orders for Vietnam after we left the officer course. Mark was killed in October 1969.

The volunteer looked up Mark’s name in a large book. “He is on Panel 17, line 107,” she said, and showed me where to look. I thanked her and stood for a few minutes at the panel, staring at Mark’s name.

A highlight was the reception for Gen. Westmoreland at the Sheraton Hotel ballroom. Cheers and applause for him rang through the hotel lobby and ballroom. “Westy is here!” men shouted. Veterans in faded jungle fatigues saluted him sharply. It was electric to see their affection for the man who had sent them to terrible places like the Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, and Hue.


On Sunday, November 13, people wildly cheered us Vietnam veterans as we marched down Constitution Avenue. It felt good. I left Washington with a new sense of pride in my service, no longer ashamed of being a Vietnam veteran. I put my military service back on my resume. Whenever I was in Washington on business, I made it a point to visit the Memorial.

Thirty-four years passed, and one day I received an email from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. They were looking for volunteers to read the names on The Wall during the thirty-fifth anniversary commemoration of the Memorial’s dedication. I signed up right away. On Wednesday, November 8, 2017, I joined the line of readers of the names.

It was cold that day. Rain came and went, but the large crowd did not move while the names were read. I checked my list one more time, then a volunteer motioned me up. It was my turn. I went to the podium and began to read my twenty-five names: “Paul Glenn Forbes, Jr., Jay Edward Forsberg…” with a healthy pause between each name.

Afterward, I rejoined my wife and we walked over to the statue of The Three Servicemen. Gray-haired men, some wearing leather vests covered with military patches and Vietnam War ribbons and medals, were taking photos. They saw my medals and said, “Welcome home, brother,” and shook my hand. It was 1982 again. I noticed that there were a lot of “grandpa groups”—families who came with a Vietnam veteran grandparent.

A group of Vietnamese tourists stopped to take pictures of the statue. I stepped away, but they shook their heads no: They wanted me in their photos. A man in the group, about my age, asked if I was there. I said yes and he said, “Me too, other side” and smiled. We shook hands. He was not the first former enemy I had met, but I thought how appropriate it was to greet him here.

Thirty-five years had passed since my first visit to this memorial to our fallen brothers and sisters, and where I found my pride in serving in the Vietnam War. We left as the rain returned with a vengeance.

I look forward to the fortieth anniversary next year.

Tom Keating is the author of Yesterday’s Soldier, a Vietnam War memoir. “Speak Out!” is an occasional series of opinion pieces, mostly by VVA members.




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