If Memorial Day represents a day of reflection, which I think it does, there is no better mirror than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
The first time I saw the Vietnam Wall was from the air, as our jet passed over the Mall on a late winter afternoon in 1985, on its way to land at Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington D.C.
Those who told me it would resemble a giant scar on the landscape weren’t that far off the mark, but how appropriate, I thought — a wound to America’s pride, certainly, but one meant to hopefully heal.
I was invited to make the journey by then UCSB Religious Studies Professor and eventual Congressman Walter Capps, whose moving and singular course on the effect of the Vietnam War in America was just beginning to receive nationwide attention and would eventually occupy a segment in a future CBS 60 Minutes program.
What made Capps’ class so unique was not its content or even its premise, although not many historians at the time were visionary enough as Capps was to look America’s worst military defeat as a “positive event” in how we could learn from it.
Capps’ class literally grew into something profound, as local Vietnam Vets began to seek it out as a safe haven to peel back their scars, open up their wounds, and recount their painful experiences for the first time since their return to a country that up until then not only refused to recognize their sacrifice and achievements but labeled them murderers as well.
Very few vets were willing in the 1970s and even the decade beyond to publicly admit they had served in a very unpopular and losing campaign.
It was not by design, Capps once told me, that more and more vets who started hearing about his class began to show up to take the stage of Campbell Hall’s 900-seat auditorium and reveal their secrets to a generation that knew little about the war.
For the first time, their courage and heroism were acknowledged and appreciated.
For the spellbound students, this was an unexpected and unparalleled course about life and death, suffering and sacrifice, resolve and redemption. That prompted a design to take it a step further.
Capps began to select students from his class, and along with a few now familiar vets, started making an annual pilgrimage to Washington to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
Being a Vietnam Veteran myself and having already reported on Capps’ class and the Vietnam veterans’ situation in Santa Barbara for KEYT-TV, it seemed necessary to record the next phase of the story; whereby personally experiencing the Wall, UCSB students whose fathers or uncles were involved in a conflict they would rarely talk about might better understand the rage, depression, futility and silence that still simmered in their souls far beyond the battlefield.
I knew going in that the controversial Vietnam Wall was not the typical monument to fallen warriors, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so overwhelming in such a subtle way. It did not stand above the ground, but was sunk into it.
As I gradually walked the path alongside the reflective, black granite panels, focusing on the more than 58,000 names engraved on that wall, I found myself slowly descending towards the center of the wedge-like structure into what felt like a coffin.
Before I realized it, I was standing below the apex, 10 feet above me. For every name I studied, I could see myself in the reflection.
To my right, in the distance, I could see the Washington Monument; to my left and much closer was the Lincoln Memorial. Down in front of me, and all along the 500-foot pathway, were placed hundreds of flowers, pictures, letters, and other sentimental treasures, many providing a glimpse into the story behind the name.
And if these didn’t tell a tale, I heard one from just about everyone I bumped into with every panel I passed — some cried, some laughed, some swore. More than a few held in their hand a rubbed-on pencil etching of a familiar name inscribed in the stone to take back home.
One quiet soldier I met staring intently at a few names told me he was there to say good-bye to members of his squad who never made it back.
“Why them, and not me?” I heard him whisper, in somewhat of a Memorial daze.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I wish I had an answer for you.”
Then he turned to me with a painful look in his eyes, “Did we really all do this for nothing?”
“Look around. I don’t think all these people here at the Wall believe that. I think they’re saying thanks. And welcome home.”
- By King Harris