Veterans at the Wall

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I
made
my first journey to the Vietnam Memorial in
September, 2006, thirty-eight years after having returned to the
"world" from that bitter place. I was profoundly astonished
by the simple grace and beauty of the sweeping black granite tribute
to the 58,000 fallen warriors. The wall was much larger than I expected
it to be. It was impressive, humbling, and incredibly tragic.

There
weren't many visitors at the early hour I chose to visit, but the
few who were there were silent and respectful. Like me, they preferred
the quiet of dawn to make this pilgrimage. Like me, they had come
to honor and pay respect to those we knew. One familiar figure stood
out not far from me. The sixtyish, chubby silhouette could belong
to no one else but Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States.

I
slowly made my way along each panel toward him and was stopped short
by his secret service bodyguards. I nodded a friendly greeting and
softly bid him a good morning. He smiled, said something low to
his guards and they stepped back as the VP waved me to approach.

He
too had come this day and hour to the The Wall to honor those he
served with in that long conflict and who had paid the full price
for freedom. Cheney had served three tours in Vietnam and had been
wounded five times, earning him an equal number of Purple Hearts.

"I
come here as often as possible to pay homage to my fallen brothers,"
Cheney said through teary eyes, "I think often of the hell
we all faced and the sacrifices these young men made." No argument
from me.

We
chatted in soft whispers of our common experience, our units and
friends. Cheney reached out to touch the name of a fallen comrade:
Rush Limbaugh. "Rush was a quiet kid who always had something
good to say about everyone, he was a good soldier," Cheney
said wiping a tear.

Moving
down the list of names etched in the black granite wall he pointed
to another name, William O'Reilly. "Bill was a good story teller.
We would listen to him for hours while he spun yarn after yarn.
He was killed in an ambush near Chu Lai in 1968. It was my second
tour and Bill's first. I earned the third of five Purple Hearts
that day."

The
Vice-President turned and acknowledged two veterans who were coming
towards us. One walked with a cumbersome limp and cane, and the
other, a triple amputee, maneuvered a wheel chair slowly in our
direction. When they were within ten feet of us I instantly recognized
these men: President George W. Bush and Senator Saxby Chambliss.

In
August of 1972, then 1st Lt. Bush of the Texas Air National
Guard, after having passed his annual flight physical, volunteered
to fly in Vietnam. Feeling a deep moral obligation to serve his
country, he chose to leave the trappings of the privileged unit
afforded the son of a U.S. Congressman. On his fifteenth mission
his plane was shot down over North Vietnam and he spent nearly three
years imprisoned at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. His leg shattered,
and without proper medical care, he was left with a crippling injury
that troubles him still.

Saxby
Chambliss lost both of his legs and an arm in April of 1968. He
had jumped from a chopper and spotted a grenade as the Huey lifted
away. Thinking it had fallen from his web gear, he reached to grab
it just as it detonated. One month from going home, Saxby volunteered
for this one last mission that cost him three limbs.

I
was somewhat nervous as I stood there with these three men, although
like me, Vietnam Veterans, they were powerful leaders in our government
and on personal missions to see that we veterans, all veterans,
were treated with the respect and given the care we had earned and
deserved.

The
president scanned the length of the wall, shook his head slowly
and said with barely concealed anger, "Can you believe there
are people in our government who openly resist the full funding
of the Veterans Administration?" Senator Chambliss laughed
sarcastically and added that most of them had never served in the
military let alone in combat. "What do they know," he
said with a hint of bitterness in his voice. "What do they
know?"

We
stood there for a few moments absorbing the Senator's comments.
It was true; the majority of those in Congress, and particularly
those who had never served in the military were so quick to judge,
to defame and mock those who had, and then as a final insult, they
moved to underfund the VA.

"I
wish Karl could have made it this morning," the president drawled.
"He's in Texas this week visiting with Tom Delay."

We
all knew the story of Lt (j.g.) Rove and how he captained a Swiftboat
on the Bay Hap River in 1969. Five PCF's, including Rove's were
returning to base when a mine lifted his craft into the air, tossing
Green Beret Advisor, Tom Delay into the water. Under heavy enemy
fire, Delay swam for shore fully expecting to be taken prisoner,
when Rove came speeding back to pull him to safety. Rove was wounded
that day and received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his daring
actions.

I
felt privileged to be there with those men, my fellow veterans and
brothers of combat. They knew. They understood the bitter-sweet
melancholy that drifted through our thoughts. They knew of the rage
that lived just below the surface, always in check…always a constant
reminder.

It
was time for them to return to their separate concerns and all three
men thanked me for sharing the morning with them. We shook hands
and they turned and walked away. I stood there in silence; proud
to have met these men…these veterans, and watched as they disappeared.
I turned and slowly continued my way along the wall…

Claude
Protz ~ Fred Fullerton ~ Robert Hartley ~ Larry Jones ~ Maurice
Williams ~ Roy Cochran ~ Dave Perkett ~ Lee Lambert ~ John Adams
~ Earl Micheles ~ James Wyatt ~ Paul Maddox ~ …

The
story, of course is fiction. The issues are not…and neither are
the names at the end.

May
1, 2006

Richard
Raitano [send him mail]
was an Army medic and casualty reporter in Vietnam.

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