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Remembering Vietnam in the darkness; honoring 58,000 service members

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The full moon looked down on me like God’s eye Thursday night as I slowly walked past the 58,000 names on The Wall That Heals.

I had been to Patriot Park Thursday morning in my role as a journalist, but I went back late that night because I wanted to experience the Wall in silence, without a notebook or camera.

Thursday morning, the wind tickled American flags under the hot August sun. Flags fluttered. Signs near the Wall asked for silence. How could you not be silent at a black gash of a wall bearing 58,000 names of the dead?

But there was no silence. Far out beyond a sprawling field of corn, rude machinery coughed and rumbled. At the Wall, I heard muffled conversations of searching families and volunteers in yellow vests helping people locate the names they had come to find.

One man couldn’t find the name he hunted for, so he walked away and called a friend on his cell phone. His wife and grandsons remained at the Wall. “Can I touch it?” the smaller boy asked his grandmother. “Yes,” she said. He ran his fingers up and down those names like a child stroking his new puppy.

As I watched, I felt a gush of memories. I am old enough to remember Vietnam.

I remember the sit-ins and marches and protests. I lived in Cleveland, close to Kent State University, where the Ohio National Guard shot student protestors on May 4, 1970. They closed down the university, and my stunned friends hurried home.

I remember 1968 and the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

I remember, clear as glass, the distraught phone call from my aunt one April evening when her son, my cousin Jeff, had been ordered to Vietnam. He survived, but he rarely talks about it. He said when he closed his eyes at night after he got home, he could see the bodies of men shot up “like Swiss cheese.” For years, he had lingering sweats from malaria.

Jeff came home, but the names on this wall did not. I wanted to go back Thursday night and read those names without lights, voices and the racket of distant machinery.

In the dark, I pondered those names. I wondered who each man was, what he looked like, where he lived and the anguish of his loved ones when they learned he had died. I imagined flags and funerals, sorrow and tears, the holes his passing left in their hearts.

Thursday morning, I’d chatted with veterans like Kenneth Wood of Hastings, a retired U.S. Marine veteran who searched for the name of Terry Sutton from Red Cloud.

I watched an elderly man in a wheelchair maneuver somberly past the Wall, staring, lost in memory. I learned about a 91-year-old Vietnam veteran who, at age 61, had been drafted again and was sent to Iraq.

I talked to Rodney Consalves, the Wall’s site manager. He’s a retired U.S. Marine from Los Angeles who has traveled with the Wall for the past year. “It’s an honor to to do this,” he said. “We want to make sure we honor every veteran to make up for how they were treated when they came home from the war.”

Back in the ‘60s, I had no use for protests and sit-ins. Many, many of us college students did not participate in Vietnam protests. The war and its long-festering causes were far bigger than any of us. To spit on men who served their country was wrong.

Time has erased this nation’s enmity. Battle scars fade, but love never dies. I felt it at the Wall. Exhibited nearby is a pair of scuffed-up military boots left by a young man at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., along with a note saying that the insults hurled at returning Vietnam soldiers taught Americans to welcome home veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts with honor and respect.

Thursday night, The Wall That Heals was a diamond necklace against the night’s black velvet dress. It is finally, fittingly, welcoming Vietnam vets home.

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