Marsha Sternberg, with tears streaming down her cheeks, and with her husband, Ken, beside her, stared at the names of her brother and cousin etched in the granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In her hand she held rubbings of both names done for her by volunteer guide John Bender.
It was Bender who approached the couple from Jasper, Ind., and explained that the 58,156 names are organized by day and year of death on the long black wall. And it was Bender who got a six-foot ladder and scrambled to the top to make the rubbings.
“It is clear he loves the wall, that he believes in it,” Marsha Sternberg said last week.
“That is one impressive guy,” her husband said. “We have met few helpful people in Washington. He was not only very helpful but very kind to us.”
Bender, 68, a World War II veteran and a retired Foreign Service officer, seems always to be in the center of a crowd of tourists who are drawn to the tall, angular man with the kindly face. The dark-rimmed glasses, a bit crooked after numerous pushes back along his narrow nose, collide with the bright yellow baseball cap that Bender wears at a jaunty angle. The heels of his black leather shoes are worn from the numerous brisk trips he makes along the cobbled path of the 493-foot-long memorial wall.
Visitors Love Him
People seem to love him.
Bender attributes his obvious success in dealing with visitors, many still distraught about relatives and friends lost long ago, to his own life experiences.
“Well, I am kind of a broken-down old drunk who has been (sober) for 20 years,” he said with a chuckle. “I survived a bout with cancer. And I saw active duty during my war. All in all, I can relate to people with problems.”
Bender said he chooses to spend his Wednesday afternoons and evenings at the wall because it makes him feel good to help people understand and appreciate the memorial.
He is helpful on other days as well when he drives cancer patients to appointments or helps his daughter run a day care center for more than 100 children.
Bender has been honored for his work at the memorial by the National Park Service, which named him the volunteer of the year in 1984. Since the memorial was unveiled in 1982, he has worked more than 2,000 hours to show people how to find the names they want to see and to make rubbings of the names.
Three years ago, he formed Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a private, nonprofit organization that strives to ensure that the memorial continues to honor those who died in Vietnam and help in healing the division and grief caused by the war in the rest of the country.
Friends President Ira Hamburg said the group goes about its work through projects such as making the name rubbings for those who cannot come to Washington.
“We have done more than 10,000 rubbings in the past 18 months,” he said. “We also bring in enough volunteers for the monthly wall-washing.”
Bender said the group’s next project is a proposal to the National Park Service to build a permanent, one-story museum near the memorial to store all the souvenirs and keepsakes left at the wall, such as yearbooks, teddy bears and military medals, which are now kept in a suburban Maryland warehouse.
Park Ranger Terry Barbot, who until recently was in charge of coordinating volunteer activities, said the 160 volunteers who help at the memorials and monuments along the Mall are of critical importance to the Park Service. She said about 80 work at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“We absolutely need them,” she said. “We can’t get along without them. And we can use as many more as there are people willing to help out.
“What the volunteers do is assist people on a one-to-one basis, and that is what makes a visit to Washington successful,” she said. “Everyone is bewildered by all the names, and then a volunteer steps forward to help, and you can see the bewilderment fade and be replaced by understanding and appreciation.”
On Friday, Bender stepped up to Leroy Vogt of San Antonio and asked if Vogt needed help. Bender looked up the name of Henry Garza for Vogt in his large green-covered directory, and found the name on Panel 12 East, Line 44.
Then he and Vogt walked to the panel and jointly made a rubbing of Garza’s name on a special form printed by the Friends.
Afterward, Vogt carefully held the rubbing. “Henry and I grew up together,” he said softly. “We were best friends. I went into the Air Force and he went into the Army.”
Vogt said he was pleased Bender had approached him.
“It was like he looked into my heart and knew I needed help,” he said. “I tried to give him money, but he wouldn’t take it. I am used to people only being helpful if they are going to be paid for it.”
Also on Friday, a day Bender usually isn’t at the wall, he stepped into the path of a jogger who seemed oblivious to the crowd of visitors on the sidewalk. As the man tried to push past Bender, the jogger was stopped by a powerful grip on his arm.
“Running is prohibited here,” Bender said quietly to the startled runner. “I know the sign is hard to see, but you cannot run through here.”
The jogger shook free and walked slowly away.
Bender said joggers and people who come to the memorial with large blaring radios upset him. But what concerns him more is the arrival of a group of children who have been given no information about the memorial.
“They will be laughing and shouting, and it’s clear they don’t understand where they are,” he said. “So I go right up to them and say: ‘Excuse me, did any of you lose a friend or relative in Vietnam? Well, if he is dead or missing, his name is on this wall.’ They quiet right down.”
Hamburg, who is also a volunteer at the memorial, said it is Bender’s directness that works so well with the visitors.
“He is a dynamic person,” he said. “He doesn’t wrap himself inside and just stand there hugging the directory. He is always making eye contact. People are hungry for knowledge about the memorial, and John is ready to talk to them.”
One of the things Bender is most ready to talk about is security at the memorial. He thinks there is plenty in place already and that the news of the scratches on three of the panels was overblown.
“It seems to me the real story is that there has been no vandalism despite the more than 15 million visitors here since 1982,” he said. “Those scratches were just someone acting stupid. Some child playing around. What is important is that we have had no graffiti and no spray painting.”
But Bender has done more than simply be helpful to visitors. It was he who devised the system of counting lines of names by 10 to find the right line more quickly, according to Hamburg.
“At first he used little paste-on dots,” he said. “Then everyone agreed it was a better system, and the dots were engraved.”
It was also Bender who persuaded the Fine Arts Commission to change the proposed design of the night lights for the memorial to one that would be less likely to cause people to trip, Hamburg said.
“If I could, I would clone John,” he said. “If we had a John Bender on all shifts, then the memorial would really be serving the public.”