|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Prior to the second week of March 2020—weekends especially—visitors to The Wall were likely to meet Park Service volunteers known as Yellow Hats. When asked to find a fallen serviceman’s name, these helpers thumbed through a directory or smart phone app until they found it. On their way to the panel, they offered to take a rubbing using a charcoal pencil on a strip of paper labeled “Vietnam Veterans Memorial.” And on Memorial and Veterans Day, veterans and their families could expect the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to host events with two thousand or more in attendance.
And then the pandemic arrived.
To prevent the further spread of COVID-19, the Superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks told the Yellow Hats to stay home. Live events were canceled, and the traveling Wall That Heals made only one site visit after mid-March. Before long, led by its president Jim Knotts, VVMF staff adapted to the shutdown. The Yellow Hats? They have waited and still wait to return to their in-person volunteer work.
A New Way to Honor the Dead
The pandemic left VVMF with just eleven days to prepare for the March 29 National Vietnam Veterans Day commemoration. Ordinarily, the Fund would ask a veterans group to come to The Wall to help host the ceremony. Now the event had to be virtual. Planners asked supporters to email video messages saying “Welcome Home” to Vietnam veterans. Into the program, they planted a stream of videos, including ones from Gary Sinise, Chuck Hagel, Dale Dye, and Karl Marlantes.
“It was a quick study lesson for us,” said Heidi Zimmerman, VVMF’s Vice President for Programs and Communications. “We took what we learned from that and immediately started talking about what we could do for Memorial Day.”
Memorial Day presented a bigger challenge. The two keynote speakers who had planned to attend agreed to reschedule for a live event at another time. How to fill the gap? VVMF planners could retrieve highlights of prior Memorial Day events from their video archives, but they wanted to include new content.
When Glenna Goodacre died in mid-April, VVMF decided to honor her. Goodacre designed and sculpted the centerpiece of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, dedicated in 1993. Her son-in-law, singer and actor Harry Connick, Jr., agreed to pay tribute to Goodacre, whom he had known and loved for nearly thirty years.
Instead of delivering prepared remarks from a podium, Connick stood leisurely in a recording studio, focused on a single listener a few feet away. He spoke casually, regrouping at times to find the right words. He described Glenna Goodacre’s strength and humor as well as her “depth and breadth as an artist.”
The setting was relaxed and quiet. No need to worry about a passenger jet coming down the Potomac or an approaching D.C. ambulance. Connick’s words and delivery proved that online productions could readily compete with live events.
In addition, from past events the production staff resurrected selections from two keynote speakers: Gold Star sister Julie Kink and retired U.S. Army colonel and former Vietnam War POW Hal Kushner. By presenting the speeches virtually, the staff used the most powerful excerpts and enhanced them with photographs depicting scenes such as departing troops, loving families, in-country action, reunited veterans, and VVMF’s familiar checkerboard of faces.
The program ended with the reading of three emotion-laden letters left at The Wall more than twenty years ago from a mother, a daughter, and a visitor. The convergence of pictures, music, and voices would not have been possible in a live event.
Ironically, because of the shutdown, VVMF discovered an effective way to honor those who had served. Still, when the program ended, there was no mingling, no chance to renew acquaintances, no selfies, and no scramble along the crowded Wall to view the nearly two dozen wreaths, flagged with identifying ribbons. Instead, Memorial Day ended with the click of one’s mouse.
Rethinking Events at The Wall
The National Park Service had not closed the Mall or The Wall itself, but throughout the summer and fall the District of Columbia remained in phase 2 of its COVID recovery plan. This forced VVMF to rethink its annual In Memory induction, ordinarily scheduled for the Saturday before Father’s Day. The In Memory program was created to honor Vietnam veterans who returned home but later died as a result of their service—including those who died from Agent Orange exposure, PTSD-related suicide, cancer, and other causes.
In a four-hour ceremony in 2019 on the grassy area east of the Wall, family members and friends read the names of more than five hundred inducted that year. Because of the participatory nature of
The Father’s Day event, celebrated jointly with Sons and Daughters In Touch, followed the lessons learned from Memorial Day. Again COVID allowed VVMF planners to circumvent the limitations of a live event by juxtaposing close-ups of speakers with poignant photographs.
Directed and hosted by SDIT President Tony Cordero, the program included a performance by singer Hank Cramer and an inspiring talk by Medal of Honor recipient Sammy L. Davis. The other speakers included former Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway, VVA President John Rowan, and Bonnie Carroll, the president and founder of TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors).
Sitting before his computer, Galloway addressed the many sons and daughters watching in their homes. “In the hearts of the children of The Wall, there is always an empty place where a father should have lived and breathed and laughed and cried with them,” he said. “Instead, they have only vague memories from an early childhood that slowly fade like the few old photos that rest with some medals and a folded flag on the top of a box or in a trunk in the attic.”
Following the speakers, the program continued with a loop of more than 150 Thank-You videos submitted by loved ones and fellow Vietnam veterans. They began with the family of Maj. Gen. George Casey, Sr., the highest-ranking Marine killed in Vietnam, and that of Capt. Riley Pitts, the first African-American officer to receive the Medal of Honor.
One video presented a woman holding photos of two fallen warriors. She was both the daughter of a Vietnam lieutenant and the mother of an Iraq War private. Other videos showed three generations honoring a father, grandfather, and great grandfather. The edited videos streamed smoothly and quickly—something not always possible with live events.
VVMF continued its programs throughout the summer and early fall. In its first-ever Agent Orange Awareness Day, VVMF staff members placed more than 1,700 candles at the Memorial, bringing awareness and encouraging others to do the same in their communities. In September, VVMF conducted a virtual ceremony to commemorate POW/MIA Recognition Day. It included a posted video in which supporters talked about their POW/MIA bracelets.
For its Veterans Day presentation VVMF again turned to a virtual format. Unlike a live event, with a single-person recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the program featured videos of VVMF supporters reciting the Pledge. The staff linked parts of the Pledge with images of families and groups saluting or putting hands over hearts. The event ended with an expanding box of individual faces projecting a single voice in a Zoomed chorus.
“Since the ceremony is virtual,” Jim Knotts said, “we have a unique opportunity to recognize with photos and videos an often-forgotten group of veterans credited with saving 10,000 lives—namely, our military working dogs.” The program featured interviews with three Vietnam War dog handlers: Terry Kehoe, Mark Smoot, and current Yellow Hat Bob Dunn.
“It was lonely out there, but I knew he was by my side and wouldn’t run from me,” Dunn said, describing Duke, his German Shepherd. “Because of him, I was able to make it back to the States.” When the U.S. military left Vietnam, the dogs were turned over to the South Vietnamese. Hundreds were euthanized. Due to the advocacy of Vietnam-era handlers, Congress passed Robby’s Law in 2000, which mandates that military dogs are no longer abandoned in war zones but are made available for adoption and placement.
The Yellow Hats Hang On
Meanwhile, the Yellow Hats were at home staring at their computer screens. The pandemic upended the weekly routine of Vietnamese-Americans Huong Le and Thao Phung. In recent years, the husband and wife team from Hyattsville, Maryland, attended every ceremonial event and every once-a-month Wall Washing. They also greeted visitors at least one day every weekend.
Both were born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States as children. As a boat person, Huong Le’s father came first. Growing up, they were active in Vietnamese-American youth organizations and wrote notes of gratitude on wreaths laid at The Wall on Memorial and Veterans Day. After marrying, they teamed up with VVA’s Silver Spring, Maryland, Chapter 641 for its Wall Washings, held in conjunction with the Park Service. That’s how they came to know—and join—the Yellow Hats.
Since the shutdown, according to Huong Le, they stopped volunteering except “in small ways, such as taking wreaths to The Wall while wearing masks, and standing six feet apart. We are very sad because we are unable to completely pour our hearts out [and] to express our admiration for the spirit of service and sacrifice” of those on The Wall who died “in defense of our country and its Constitution.”
Allen McCabe also had been a Yellow Hat weekend regular. A vice president of Hughes Network Systems in Germantown, Maryland, he has volunteered for more than 18 years and was appointed to the VVMF Board in 2019. McCabe is both the communicator-in-chief, keeping the Yellow Hat family informed, and the guardian of the color-coded, tiny-print, two-page Fact Sheet meant to supply volunteers with the answer to every conceivable question that a visitor might pose.
To offset lost time at The Wall, Allen completed a long-postponed project. With the help of VVMF staff member Latosha Adams, he wrote and produced a 46-minute video that was posted on the VVMF website in September. In it, Allen’s takes the viewer on a path that begins with an overview of the war, both in-country and at home, continues with Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs’ determination to build the memorial, and ends with the story of The Wall itself and what it means today.
Sweating and Freezing
“A huge bummer.” That’s what Annmarie Emmet has to say about the shutdown. Until her late eighties, she mounted a ladder and took rubbings on The Wall’s inner panels. More recently, she could be seen in the kiosk between The Wall and the Lincoln Memorial sliding the window open to an inquisitive tourist. Because of the pandemic, Allen McCabe had to abandon a restaurant birthday party he had planned for her in July. Several weeks later, though, he hosted an outdoor gathering next to the Lincoln Memorial where Emmet’s Yellow Hat comrades (at safe distances) celebrated her 90th birthday.
Other Yellow Hat volunteers have adjusted to the shutdown in different ways. Al Gallant, an Air Force military policeman during the Vietnam War, has used the extra time to “walk in the combat boots” of Army, Navy, and Marine Vietnam War veterans by watching their video interviews on the Veterans History Project on the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center web page, “These interviews are enlightening,” he said, “but I’d rather be either sweating or freezing at The Wall.”
The shutdown has caused Bill Shugarts to shift his volunteer time to the new Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington and the recently opened National Museum of the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia. “Both are adhering to COVID-19 protocols and restricted capacities,” he said. Shugarts expressed concern for “the PTSD groups from the Lyons, New Jersey, VA Hospital and the Fort Belvoir Warrior Transition Battalion soldiers” no longer able to make in-person healing tours of the Wall.
At least two volunteers, Hank Lazzaro and Joe Leone, have come to the Wall during the pandemic in a “non-NPS capacity,” although less regularly than they did before. Both greeted visitors and did rubbings when asked. Rather than wear the Park Service yellow shirt or jacket, Lazzaro wore either a blue VVMF volunteer shirt or his U.S. Marine Corps jacket.
Twice since the shutdown, Joe Leone has arrived at The Wall from his home in New Jersey. Instead of his yellow hat, he has worn a Vietnam veterans hat, fortified by a mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer. He maintained distance and avoided handshaking. “The effect of being there for me was the same,” Leone said. “It’s always a privilege to be there, and it brings a calm over me that I can’t explain.”
Volunteer Jim Scott agrees with Leone about The Wall’s calming effect. Except for some Saturday morning Wall Washings this summer and fall, Scott has not visited since the March shutdown. Even after fifty years, his Vietnam experiences are not far from his mind. To offset the loss of volunteering, he and his wife have tried to do more outdoor activities such as hiking. But issues persist.
“Going to The Wall, especially interacting with the volunteers, talking to other vets, and seeing special names, has really helped me work through my problems,” Scott said. “The bottom line is I miss volunteering as a Yellow Hat and can’t wait to start again.”
Out-of-towner Bruce Wells expressed the same sentiment. He hopes he can return to The Wall soon. “I have an opportunity once a year to volunteer for a couple of days,” he said. “I leave emotionally drained, but wish I could stay longer and come more often.”
Immediately before the shutdown, Jim Greene, who volunteered regularly three afternoons a week, spotted “a beautiful indoor flower plant” left at The Wall. Recognizing what winter weather would do to it, the former Marine “took direct frontal action.” He brought it home, nurtured it along, and plans to return it to the memorial in the spring.
Bill Walters is also ready to come back. Without his yellow hat or jacket, he visits The Wall about once a month. He’s always glad to see the occasional wreath. “They add some color,” Walters said. “But the number of visitors is low. It’s way too quiet.”
A Virtual Christmas Tree
For the past 22 years, accompanied by an Army brass quintet, two dozen or more Yellow Hats and family members have placed and decorated a Christmas tree at the center of The Wall, in part as a way to reenact those December days in Vietnam when homesick troops decorated a tree with makeshift ornaments. At The Wall, the ornaments are mostly laminated, weather-resistant cards containing photos of those who lost their lives in Vietnam. The Park Service has allowed the practice, provided the tree is removed by January 1.
For the past few years, Yellow Hat John Rihn, his wife, his daughter, and Allen McCabe have submitted the paperwork and managed the logistics to make it all happen. But like just about everything else this year, The Wall’s Christmas “family gathering” went virtual, graced with photos, videos, and songs of past Christmases.
In the video Yellow Hat veterans Bill Shugarts and Michael Coale talked about their Christmastime experiences in Vietnam and coming home. Coale’s wife had refused to take their Christmas tree down until he arrived. Hosting the event from his home in Pittsburgh, John Rihn thanked the VVMF staff for providing the technology and resources to bring everyone together and talked about The Wall tree. “Our attraction and dedication to The Wall is not driven by what we bring or leave there,” he said. “Our gathering is driven by what we receive and what it gives to us, each of us.”
While there was no scent of a freshly cut tree, no lifting of a small child who needed help to place an ornament higher up, the virtual presentation had one huge benefit: Many out-of-towners could tune in. Former Donut Dolly and Gold Star sister Nancy Smoyer, the longest-serving Yellow Hat, watched from her home in Fairbanks, Alaska.
As in prior December ceremonies, the event ended with bugler Rick Pasciuto playing “Taps.” But this time he didn’t stand in the fading afternoon sunlight with the Washington Monument at his back. Instead, he played in darkness, standing on his front porch strung with Christmas lights.
A few days later, New Jersey resident Michael Coale, whose wife had recently died of cancer, talked about caring for her over the past seven months. During that period, he said, he had thought about his own health. He was getting older, had vision and arthritis problems, and wondered if he would ever “get back to our beloved Wall.” But the Christmas ceremony lifted his spirits.
“Now, with the passing of my Rose, I may just ‘damn the torpedoes full ahead’ and return to The Wall.”
Mike Coale speaks for all of the Yellow Hats. When the Park Service gives the green light, they will return, as many as before.
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