A daughter sees her father’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. Her father died as a result of the effects of Agent Orange when she was 11 years old. He was medevacked to Walter Reed Hospital where she saw him before he died, but she did not really understand fully what it all meant.
Elizabeth Swiriduk is also a veteran. When she grew up she joined the Navy “to make [her] daddy proud.”
The war in Vietnam ended four decades ago, but new names are still being carved into the black granite surface of the Vietnam Memorial just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Thirteen new names were carved there just recently, on Mothers Day 2014. One of those names was that of Walter Hugh Mauldin, the father of Elizabeth Swiriduk, mentioned above. Jim Lee, one of the people who finds spots on the Wall then does the sandblasting to carve the new names, said of it: “It’s a very poignant statement about what war is all about.”
For Whom the Bell Tolls
The fact of war is that there are many who received injuries so severe that even after decades they still suffer and die as a result of those wounds received in combat those many years ago. In Vietnam there were many who were affected by the lingering and ultimately fatal diseases caused by Agent Orange. When the veterans in these situations die, their names are being entered on the Memorial in recognition of these facts.
It must be remembered, too, that the names of those listed as MIA are also carved into the wall. When their remains are found and repatriated, their status is changed from MIA to deceased. Eight more of our MIAs from Vietnam have had that status change this year. (I knew one of those whose status was changed last year. I was able to attend his burial ceremonies in Spokane, WA with the family. You can read the articles I wrote about that event on this page as well.)
The Vietnam Memorial, from its very beginning, has had a deep affect on those who stand before it. Its design is remarkably simple and haunting. When you stand before it your own image is reflected back at you, symbolically connecting you to those names of the fallen at the same time. For as the great English poet and essayist John Donne wrote:
“No man is an island apart from the continent… Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am a part of mankind. Send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
The Wall That Heals
For those of us who came home, the Wall has become both an honored memorial to our fallen brothers and sisters and a pilgrimage place. Many of us go there as middle-aged and old men now. When I went to it 20 years after coming home, it took me four days to work up the courage to approach that sweeping black gash in the earth before I could face all of those names looking back at me. All I could do was stand there weeping.
To this day, I have not been able to find the words to describe my feelings. They are too great, too deep and, strangely, still too close. The memories have rounded off. I went on with my life and married, had children, enjoyed a happy career in teaching. Life has been good. But that Wall has an inexplicable power in it that honors those memories for us vividly.
The fact is that every one who has been in combat carries wounds. Some are wounds in the body, others are wounds in the mind or in the soul. Most recover, but the wounds are there and they shape the rest of our lives in some way. I have had a good life, but I will never be far away from the memories that tattooed themselves into my mind during those thirteen months in Vietnam. Nor will I ever forget the brotherhood that was forged there. Though we may never see one another again in this life, we remember each other with a feeling that is unlike any other.
Speaking in poetry
That Wall in Washington, D.C. stirs powerful emotions in those who fought there, in the families of those who fought and died there, and even in those who have no connections or related memories at all. Maybe the power is in the starkness of it. It is just names carved into a black granite mirror, after all. It has a couple of very moving statues associated with it, that were put up at later dates. One honors those who fought in Vietnam with the more traditional statement of a powerful sculpture. The other honors the nurses who so professionally and tenderly cared for them when they were wounded or dying.
The Vietnam Memorial has none of the elegiac grandeur of the nearby Lincoln or Jefferson Memorials. You are not made to feel small in the presence of giant statuary and historical greatness. Its simplicity speaks more in the sparse language of the heart. It is not prose; it is poetry. In many ways, it is a monument to the common man and woman who fought and died far from home, in a land that was not familiar, for a cause that was never clearly articulated, and that caused a great gash in the fabric of society. It is not a “thank you” from the nation. It was fought for and supported with private funds. It simply honors the sacrifices that were made with a humble grace. Maybe that is its true power. It is not about the great among us but about those young men and women who came from farms, hollows, suburbs and city streets who simply fought bravely to protect and defend one another.
“In many ways, it is a monument to the common man and woman who fought and died far from home, in a land that was not familiar…”
We here at The Veterans Site honor those who fought and those who fell in Vietnam. We honor you for the unsung sacrifices you made for the nation then, and for the contributions you have made to the nation since then with your lives. We honor your families as well. Thank you and “Welcome Home.”
Image A close up view of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, showing a reflection of the Washington Monument, located at Washington, D.C. (USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Amber K. Whittington).