The names. So many names.
Row after row after row of them, from Gerald Aadland to David Zywicke, enough names to fill a directory 763 pages thick.
More names than there are people in Great Falls, Mont., so many that it once took the better part of three days to read them all at the Washington Cathedral.
"Are these the people who died in all the wars?" asks a young girl. "No," says her mother. "Just Vietnam."
With American troops once again headed overseas--taking up positions in the Middle East in the largest buildup since Vietnam--a visit to the Vietnam Memorial, or The Wall, as everyone calls it, is particularly poignant. The expanse of black granite panels in Constitution Gardens bears 58,175 names. It has surpassed Mt. Rushmore as the most-visited national monument.
In a city of soaring, white marble commemorations of heroic deeds, this two-acre plot, run by the National Park Service, has become the last fire base, a place of pilgrimage that, just by being there, has helped to heal a nation's wounded spirit.
By the thousands they come, in the sunlight of summer days and in the blackness of night, daring to remember what they once tried to forget.
A psychologist is with a group of veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. And Gilda DelSignore, with a platoon of Italian tourists. "Seeing the wall helps them understand America," she says.
The mother of Cpl. William R. Stocks, Eleanor Wimbish, has been coming since the memorial was dedicated eight years ago.
"I guess the people running this war know what they're doing," her son once wrote, "but I sure don't understand. People are getting killed and it just doesn't seem like any progress is being made."
Then he, too, was gone. When Wimbish first found his name carved on the wall, she did not see the faces of the dead as she had expected. What she saw in the reflection of the granite was her own image and that of the trees and grass beyond. It was as though the wall were a living thing.
"I can't explain what it is," she said. "I only know this wall is important to me. To me, it seems like Billy is there."
The names are arranged not alphabetically, but in the order in which the men and women fell, so that each panel is a chapter of history. At the vertex of the V-shaped wall, 10 feet above the ground, the names of the first casualties, in 1959, and those of the last, in 1975, come together--a completed journey in a war that had no beginning and no real end, only a first death and a last.
Beneath the panel bearing her son's name, Wimbish, on one of her visits, left a letter that her husband had wrapped in plastic. She had written: "Dear Bill . . . I came to this black wall again to see and touch your name, and as I do, I wonder if anyone ever stops to realize that next to your name, on this black wall, is your mother's heart. A heart broken 15 years ago today when you lost your life in Vietnam. . . . But this I know. I would have rather to have had you for 21 years, and all the pain that goes with losing you, than never to have had you at all. . . . Mom."
The idea for a Vietnam memorial was conceived over a bottle of whiskey by Jan Scruggs, an ex-infantryman in the employ of the Labor Department.
"The names," he later wrote, "the names. No one remembers the names."
The memorial was designed by Maya Ying Lin, a Yale student whose parents escaped from China in 1949. It was widely criticized at first. Black was a negative color, the critics said. Where was the American flag?
"The names would become the memorial," she answered.
Jim Copeland drove over from Philadelphia the other day to gaze quietly at 10 of those names for nearly two hours. It was his third visit to the wall, and "every one gets a little easier," he said.
He had placed 10 small flags at the base of panel 33E, and on each had written the name of a fellow Marine killed when Delta Company was decimated near Hoi An one January day 22 years ago.
The flags Copeland left were collected that night by a park ranger and put in a storage room in the base of the Lincoln Memorial. In a day or two they would make their way to the warehouse in Greenbelt, Md., where curator Duery Felton--whose wounds in 1967 almost qualified him for a place on the memorial--oversees the collection of memorabilia left at the base of the wall.
Tagged and catalogued on the shelves and in the cabinets are photographs, medals, flak jackets, several teddy bears, a high school yearbook, a lock of hair and many letters--letters that represent conversations with the living, not the dead.
"Hey, Bro," starts one that was left with a can of Colt 45, "here's the beer I owe you--24 years late. You were right. I did make it back to the world. Great seeing you. Sorry I'm not with you, but I'll be along soon. Thanks, Sarge."