“… and a lot of guys went, and a lot of guys didn’t come back. And a lot that came back…weren’t the same anymore.” – Bruce Springsteen
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial remains one of the most visited sites in DC, and no matter how often I chaperone friends and family on tours of the DC area, I will never hesitate to return. It functions neither as visually impressive art –though it is a wonderful instance of what art can and should do—nor as an uplifting and inspiring monument to the ideals of our country or to the tremendous individuals that have blazed one of many paths toward our country’s greatness. The Wall is, for me, a cemetery, but not only for the 58,000 noble souls whose names are emblazoned on the panels. The mood at the memorial is almost tangibly somber, and I think part of it has to do with the very real loss of something more than any collection of names could articulate. The Wall lists servicemember casualties, of course. And I am filled with profound respect for those who lost their lives in Southeast Asia, and feel a deep sense of sympathy for those who lost friends and family. But much more was lost in Vietnam. Perhaps we lost our sense of military invincibility. Perhaps Vietnam forced us to face up to the idea that our moral compass was not infallible. But to me, a visit to The Wall is a bracing reminder that some national and personal wounds will never heal.
My own Wall story is not as dramatic as those you might hear from a tour guide or those you overhear as you move around the grounds of the memorial. I was born in 1969, and had always known that my parents had adopted me when I was 8 days old. I knew nothing about my birth parents, other than that they were young and that marriage was not in the cards. My adoptive parents are tremendous people; being adopted wasn’t at the forefront of my mind for many years, and the story of my birth parents wasn’t something that gnawed at me. But despite not growing up in a military environment, at some point in my teens, I gravitated to the POW-MIA movement. It was more than just being 16 at the time Rambo II was released, when young people were inflamed with youthful idealism and Hollywood patriotism. The POW-MIA cause was something more fundamental and essential to me. I just sensed that it was something much closer to me than it was to my friends. So I got the t-shirts and displayed the flag. And it was not until 2009 that I first spoke with my birth mother, a wonderful lady who confirmed what I had always suspected: that Vietnam had played a central role in my adoption.
I learned that my biological father is a West Point grad, and though he and my biological mother were quite serious, she did not think that that becoming a new bride and mother and immediately sending a husband off to Vietnam was the family scenario she envisioned for her life. Nonetheless, he left for Vietnam shortly after graduation. After being in country for some time, his helicopter was shot down in 1971. After being shot in the chest in the gunfight, he was captured, went MIA and then was classified POW after about a year. He did time at various camps and then was transferred to the Hanoi Hilton. As far as I can gather, he suffered all of the atrocities you would expect in such conditions. He was released in 1973, and in an eerie coincidence, my biological mother happened to have the TV on as he stepped off the plane upon his return. When my birth mother and I reconnected, she sent me a photo of ‘bio-dad’ (as she calls him) as a senior at West Point; I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty close’. And as I came to learn, one of the features of The Wall is that it was deliberately built to have a reflective quality, to act as a kind of mirror. And so when I visited the memorial shortly after our move to Ft. Detrick, I was able to see an imperfect image of my biological father staring back at me as I reviewed the names on the panels…looking at myself—and him—looking at the names of the deceased. After going back and forth on whether to get in contact with him after all these years, I got up the nerve to call him, two years after reconnecting with my birth mother. I wish I could say it was a wonderful, joyous conversation. It wasn’t. Nor was it painful or shattering. It was just…flat, vacant…like I was his insurance agent calling to renew a policy. And when I visited the memorial again this spring, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other servicemembers never really returned—intact—from Vietnam. How many casualties without memorials did Vietnam actually claim? How many prisoners of war—prisoners of their own minds and bodies—are there really? The lone conversation I had with my biological father, a call so distant and impersonal, was fresh in my mind when I visited the memorial again recently. Because even though I know where he lives, I just don’t know where he is.