Veterans at the Wall

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