The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is composed of seventy-four separate panels, measuring forty inches in width, meeting at an angle in the center, where the tallest panels are slightly over ten feet. This is where the list of names starts. Beginning with the date 1959, and continuing back to the end of the East section, the names appear to recede into the ground, only to “reappear” at the start of the West section, ending once again in the center with the date 1975. Thus, the circle of war is complete, broken only by the earth itself.
One hundred and thirty-seven names are listed on the tallest panels. The shortest panel has one. The last four panels are blank. The names are listed in chronological order by the date of the casualty. Within each day, the names are alphabetized. Most of the panels have five names per line inscribed, but some are now carrying six. As of 2016, the total number of names is 58,315, with about 1,200 marked as still missing (MIAs, POWs, and others).
As with all family members of Vietnam veterans living or dead, I have a special interest in one of the panels: Panel 3 East. Panel 3 East represents the Ia Drang Valley ambush. My oldest brother was one of the survivors of that fierce battle. In 2005, I went to a First Cavalry reunion that marked the fortieth anniversary of the battle. I met other survivors of that terrible time and slowly learned that most, if not all, still suffer with what they had to see, and what they had to do, in country. The veterans talked casually and warmly, often with great wit and charm, until that sound…or that word…or that photograph…came into their view and suddenly, there it was again: that gray, pained, haunted look that I was beginning to recognize.
In the wee hours of Sunday on that Veterans’ Day weekend, we all gathered at Panel 3 East before sunrise in preparation for a reading of the names by (Ret.) Colonel Hal Moore and Joe Galloway. Moore and Galloway are authors of the book that describes the battle, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young.
The veterans who gathered at the Wall in the darkest hours before the dawn, were somber and straight….noble in their bearing. Their eyes shifted from the ground to the Panel, then to the ground again. The family members kept close, warily watching their veteran, wondering if they could be strong enough to face whatever emotion would be called forth from the depths of those they loved, who have already given so much.
The First Cavalry Honor Guard was standing at attention on the top of the Panel, with the flag and the campaign ribbons of the First Cavalry. In the pre-dawn darkness, you could only see them when a flash from a camera exploded. Then the blue and gray, red white and blue, became etched against the black of the night in eerie poignancy.
Moore and Galloway took their places in front of the panel as the sun’s rays began to creep upon the ground, encasing the entire memorial in a grayish light. One by one, the names were read with deep respect and choked voices. With each name, the sun’s morning band of colors widened their grip of the earth, broadening their reach against the panel. Name after name, the dawn crept in stealthily, gently highlighting the Honor Guard, and bleeding the reddish hue of the dawn down the panel like a stream of blood on a battlefield. Stifled sobs could be heard in the intense quiet of the group and above the sound of a name being read. I was ashamed to feel relief that I didn’t have to listen that closely – my brother’s name wasn’t on that wall.
I began to search the faces of the living veterans, wondering how often they went “back there.” Were they suffering with night terrors or flashbacks? Did they feel out of place in their skin because America had no place to file them away after they came back? Were they feeling survivor’s guilt and thinking their names should be on that panel, instead of their comrades?
Their shaking shoulders told me everything I needed to know. And in knowing, my heart broke. Being at the Wall in that cold, haunting dawn, and hearing the roll call of the dead in front of the names, took battlefield courage.
I knew that many outstanding veterans, who had fought on Vietnam soil and faced the enemy with determination and guts, would never find the courage to visit the Wall and see for themselves, the names of their friends and colleagues who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Or, attend a reunion and see their friends and “brothers.” Their suffering is too much to bear already.
Tears slid down my cheeks. I turned back to stare at the Panel, hearing the veterans crying for those whose names are listed, and I cried with them.
But I wasn’t crying for the names on the Wall. I was crying for those whose names are not.
The lost brothers and sisters-in-arms from the Vietnam War are now at peace. May those they left behind find some, too.
Facts about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall:
The Memorial consists of three pieces: the Wall of Names, the Three Servicemen Statue and Flagpole, and the Vietnam Women’s memorial.
No federal funds were needed to construct the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Almost $9,000,000 in private contributions was donated..
The flag flies twenty-four hours, seven days a week to pay tribute to the men and women listed on the Wall of Names.
No civilians are listed on the Wall of Names.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is visited by over four million people annually.