The Wall weeps for many

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

In honor of those who have served, Veterans Day, November 11, 2011

“When I first saw it at the dedication in 1982,” said the veteran of an undeclared war, “I thought it was a nice memorial to all the people who died.

“But now,” and his blue eyes began to glisten faster than he could close them — to the memory of buddies and limbs lost; to the etched names of 58,272 dead warriors; to the clusters of their families, the tourists, the curious and awestruck and angry and guilt-ridden — “now I think there are too many names.”

And he fell as silent and far away as only one can, who has offered up his life and lived while others died.

But still, he and millions of others from around the world make their pilgrimages to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the United States’ Wailing Wall, a monument that has dramatically transcended its original intent. Thirty-six years since President Nixon gave up and we pulled out of Vietnam, they come with the raw emotions of grief and ambiguity and three decades of slowly evolving perspectives. And in their tumultuous wake, they leave things — things personal and symbolic, things spontaneous and enigmatic — the things that have become the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, tangible reminders of this, and other, wars.

A frayed POW-MIA flag and a bracelet commemorating Pfc. Charles D. Chomel, USMC, declared missing in action June 11, 1967.

M&Ms, the soldier’s unmeltable treat and the wounded’s placebo.

A World War II helmet.

MPCs, the military’s scrip.

World War I unit insignia.

Short timers’ sticks, the mark of a soldier soon headed home.

A Desert Storm Silver Star given from son to fallen father.

They leave the inscrutable symbols — perhaps of camaraderie and love.

Chef Boyardee cheese pizza mix.

A miniature Starship Enterprise.

Bazooka Joe comics.

A McGovern-Shriver ’72 pin.

Stuffed animals.

A bottle of champagne.

A tricked-out Harley-Davidson.

And they leave the letters of loved ones, unresolved survivors, anonymous critics.

“I’m sorry I forgot your flower, so caught up was I in myself and my grief for Caleb. A young man today, he told me he is afraid to come to The Wall. He doesn’t know what to say to a man who’s been to war. I told him to say, ‘Thank you.’”

“Pat, your little girl is a Marine now, just like you.”

“Uttermark and I flipped a coin. ... His name is on this monument. I’m alive.”

“It was a brave thing you did. It must have been really scary, but it was wrong for the U.S. to send troops off into such a hellish place.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for your service, my Father, and for my life. I’ll do the best I can.”

“Micky, you should have zigged instead of zagged. I love you brother. Happy, LRRP.”

And the divorce decree of a soldier resigned to another casualty, “You did everything you could; it just didn’t work out.”

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection is a growing accumulation of artifacts selected by the living, giving recognition to the dead. And even more: It is a reflection of the phenomena, the vast spectrum of experiences, that were, and continue to be for so many, the Vietnam War — any war.

In this 29th anniversary year of The Wall’s dedication, still people come and still they leave the things that might give them — and perhaps the world — some peace. But most poignant and ephemeral of the artifacts they leave, are the tears shed at The Wall — for loved ones killed or still missing, for parents or grandparents never known, for lingering opposition to the war, for denial of a hero’s welcome, for fear of wars to come.

And the tears, beseeching resolution, leave sorrowful salt trails on the black granite wall, only to be rinsed away by the next rain. And then replaced again.

And again.

Love, K-B

Crossposted at San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

Photograph of The Wall from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website.