I had no idea what to expect when I found out that my partner would be volunteering at the building of the wall. Not “The Wall,” the one that lights up every talk show, radio, podcast and television news channel, but the other one, the one that was forced into its creation because of the incredible loss of over 58,000 American lives.
The Moving Wall is a traveling memorial wall to make sure that this country remembers the Vietnam War and its over 58, 000 American lives lost and 304,000 wounded. Over two million Vietnam civilians and over one million Vietnam fighters died in this tragedy as well.
I am certainly not here to give a history lesson, for sure I need one myself since I was born right in the midst of its escalation, 1965. My father had been in college at the time, married my mother a year earlier, and likely because of his own fortunate socio economic position in life, avoided the draft. I am not sure if this is why he got married at twenty in 1964, but I am guessing that it must have been on his mind. I will never know since he passed away in 2011.
What I do know is that the Moving Wall must be named both literally and figuratively; it is moving to say the least.
Right now its resting place is Touro Park in Newport, RI and even if you have seen the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, this replica takes your breath away, wets your eyes and causes a great question in your heart, Why? As a mother of a twenty one year old son, my heart cracked open as I considered that most of the men on that wall were his age.
When I asked the Google question whether there were any women on the wall, the number that came up was eight, but I need to confirm this. This was a different time, our boys were drafted and the women who served were mostly in the traditional roles of nurses and caregivers, left to pick up the literal pieces of our boys. They were significant, but like the wars before seldom celebrated and memorialized.
Over two million of our boys were drafted. Over two million of a twenty-seven million pool. I can’t imagine what happened to the communities and the families during this time in our nation’s dark history.
When I went for the vigil this past Friday night, I had no idea what to expect; there were the rough and tumbled Vietnam Vets arriving on their motorcycles, leather vests, tattooed, long white ponytails well into their seventies now. There were the men and their families who managed to survive the war, return home in one bodily piece and get on with their lives. There were the families of the fallen searching for the name. Everyone had a story, everyone knew someone. Everyone cried.
My young world was not affected by the Vietnam War. I don’t recall anyone in my neighborhood drafted, or much discussion about the war other than its presence on dinner time television. I was only four years old when my partner, eighteen years my senior, was drafted. A neighborhood only ten or so miles away and miles apart with its impact on community. I may not have even gone if it hadn’t been for my partner. Micheal was drafted in 1968 and served in Vietnam for one year. His friends from his Federal Hill neighborhood were drafted too as their community fell into that unfortunate category my father had the luxury of avoiding.
These vets were not celebrated on their return, but booed, insulted and it was a double travesty. Vietnam vets suffered emotional wounds that if they are alive today still deal with, not to mention the long term effects of agent orange on their health and life. This wall commemorates not only the ones who didn’t make it, but the ones who were forced by our government to fight a war based on ego and abuse of government’s power. The ones who made it back, like my partner, his friends, my uncle in law are lucky to be alive. We are lucky they are still here to tell the stories and to share their grief as they open up to finally release theirs.
Michael and I looked for the name of one of his friends who didn’t make it back, we looked for the name of one of our friend’s cousins. We were asked if we wanted to do an etching, but we didn’t need to because once you see a name of someone it is etched in your spirit immediately. They are remembered. This is the truest memorial.
As I sat at the Vigil with my candle burning, I listened to the 203 Rhode Island names read, some still M.I.A. and wept. This wall is an important part of our American history so that we never forget what can go terribly wrong when decisions are made for the very wrong reasons. Every twenty something should bear witness to the possibilities of their own good fortune they don’t live in the time of a draft, for now anyway. We gratefully rely on volunteers to enlist and for now this is enough for our country. I hold my breath, though, because we just never know.
This wall is at the park until September 23rd and is headed to Attleboro, Mass Sept 26-30.