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Opinion: Veterans Day: A visit to the Moving Wall.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

It begins with a note to my nephew, a National Merit Scholar, who called recently to ask for information concerning my husband's time in the Air Force during Vietnam and his service in the Philippine Islands. I also sent along a copy of an essay I'd written several years ago after visiting the Moving Wall exhibit of the Vietnam Memorial that visited Cape Girardeau in the 1980s. Here is the e-mail message to my nephew, E.J. Morgan, as he was helping with plans for a Veterans Day memorial at Kelly High School:

E.J.

I wrote this essay after taking Brad and Chris to see the Moving Wall, a small traveling version of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Let me know how all goes with your Veterans Day event. And please extend our deep gratitude to all the planners and participants.

Lawrence and I have often said that maybe the reason there is such as outpouring of support for our troops in the Middle East today is because it's an emotional backlash for the lack of support that was given our GIs coming back from Vietnam. Those returning GIs vowed that they would never turn their backs on the sacrifice of others. Theirs was an inglorious sacrifice -- which should be an oxymoron. But in the case of the returning Vietnam vets, it was not, unfortunately.

I wonder how many of our homeless wanderers on our city streets today in shades of camouflage would not be wandering if their return had held more significance for our country.

Native Americans have a similar approach to tribal trauma. No one moves, and all eyes (and sometimes hands) are on the person that is ill, until he/she is whole again. At our second home in Arizona, our little town is surrounded by two Indian reservations. One of them is the home of one of the raisers of that famous flag on Iwo Jima in World War II, Ira Hayes (who died a hopeless alcoholic), and this still affects their culture.

For example, if Uncle goes to jail for drinking and disturbing the peace, the rest of the family often camps out on the courthouse steps until there is a "joining" again. The children often miss school, and a nearby reservation town has a low 40 percent attendance rate because of this very primal type of mourning. But the Native Americans realize, more than the rest of our American social structure, that we are each a part of the whole, whether family or community, and a community can't heal or grow as long as one member is hurting. This is wisdom.

It's taken us a long time to learn that -- but we are learning. And this gives us hope.

Thanks for all your care -- and support. It helps the healing.

Love and best, from your aunt

Catharsis

Written after visiting the Moving Wall that visited Cape Girardeau, Missouri in the late 1980s.

I took the children to see the Vietnam Memorial today. They call it the Moving Wall -- because it moves from place to place, I guess. Nice thought -- to have a memorial. I mean, they usually do after a war, don't they? But, then, we don't want to get into that.

On the way over I reminisced out loud about "those days." I wanted to instill a little understanding into them about our own lives and that era.

But how can you explain to children about the apathy shown the returning soldier and the bitter taste left in them by war and the apparent waste? I feel the metallic taste of remembrance myself and trail off. They listened some and fidgeted, as is usual.

As we parked nearby, I wondered what it'd mean to me, this wall. After all, we'd filed all those thoughts and feelings away a long time ago.

A long black wall.

Symbolic, I thought. I wondered if it was like the long, black hole left in our hearts. Nice thought, rather stark -- like most things connected with this war. There are names printed there on this wall that is narrow at this end, widening, then narrow again at the far end.

"Like a large gaping wound," I mumble. But a wound filled with names? Yes.

That's what it is. A wound healed? I wonder.

All along the front of the wall there are little flags stuck in the ground and here and there a flower. Is that a note? Yes, and a picture.

I look down the line and reflect. Strange to think of people littering the ground around a national monument. It's like an outpouring. Yes, that's what it is.

"Mom, look at this picture. Is it a soldier? Did he die?" my young son queries before starting away with the quickness of the very young.

"Yes, son," I answer as I bend over to see better and notice the note. Hold back those quick tears -- you're too emotional anyway.

There's another note with a flower: "Steve, 'I did not forget,' Ron."

Another note: "You were too gentle to go to war. I miss you, honey."

Another: "We'll be joining you soon, Son. Only God knows how much we've missed you."

Another: "Dear Daddy, I can't read anymore. The letters are blurred. From the tears in my eyes? No, from the tears of others -- that have fallen on the letters on the lines. And yes, from my own."

A long letter here, in tribute form. The gist of it: "I came back alive. Why me?"

I move on abruptly.

And I ponder again -- for the millionth time, Would we do it again? What was it for? What have we learned? Quickly, the answer: For human rights. To protect the human rights of others -- and ourselves? Would we do it again? No, is my first thought.

... But I think most especially of the effect that is wrought by the thought of young people taken from soft lives -- yes, soft, compared to many -- and leaving them, obediently, and then laying them down. They weren't persecuted or repressed or threatened -- or were they? David ran to meet the giant.

Young lives that didn't have to go -- moved on the hearts and minds of all they touched and of an entire world. Why? What was it for?

When I hear names called out in the poignant atmosphere of a graduation, I say to myself, This is what it was for. We can gather peaceably and with our traditions intact.

When I hear the municipal band play at the park on a warm summer's eve, I remind myself, This is what it was for. We can gather with our friends and neighbors and each appreciate in their own way the free expressions of our varied culture.

When I hear the national anthem at the school football game or see the flag pass in parade and feel myself irresistibly pulled to my feet, I remember all it stands for and the price that's been paid and I muse, This is what it was for. Our hearts can be stirred and we can feel free to respond.

When I see children playing and parents watching and planning their futures -- and dreaming, I think again, This is what it was for. We can dream because our dreams are laced with possibilities. It gives us hope in the future.

When I kneel down to pray, I can pray -- and I thank God -- this is what it was for. It takes away a lot of the hurt.

It was our statement.

And war has made us a believer in peace to an even greater degree.

I'm brought back from my reverie by the wind whipping the flag flying at half-mast.

The people are passing by quietly. Some are searching for names. Some are telling perfect strangers the story behind a name. And I'm wondering, what would he tell us, our GI., if he could speak to us from the other side of the wall? It seems you can almost see him, sitting cross-legged on a little rise in his camouflage fatigues with the sleeves rolled up. His hat brim is turned up on one side. He's rolling a cigarette -- and cupping it. Now he's squinting off into the distance -- or the darkness. I think he sees because he suddenly grins as he lifts his hand in a familiar gesture. And I hear a soft, faint call: "Peace!" In another, calmer vernacular I think he's trying to say, "Let there be peace!" The gaping wound of a people has been healed by lacy names from side to side, and the interlaced hearts and minds and lives written on and woven into a moving wall.

Regina E. Tucker resides in Jackson.


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