font-family: 'Arizonia', cursive; Michael Stichauf - "As I understand it now...'til it changes": A Story of Healing from the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Story of Healing from the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial

Not many war stories have "uplifting" endings but if any do, this one is certainly my candidate. I saw it while I was watching a Smithsonian channel show about the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. The show was about the Memorial and the trials and tribulations that it went through in order to get built. I apologize but I can't remember the name of the show and I can't seem to track it down.
Long View of the Wall.

The Wall at Night
The show described how, because of the deep divisions we still had about the war in the late 70s, there were people with deep emotions for and against the Memorial being built. The "Anti-War" folks felt that we shouldn't commemorate a war that they felt was illegal and brutalizing to the people of Viet Nam. On the other side of the issue were most of the vets and other people who felt that the war was justified and was what America was supposed to do to help stop the "scourge" of Communism. They felt that the soldiers who died fighting the war, at least, deserved recognition for their sacrifice. It was finally agreed, though, that a memorial would be commissioned.

The Three Soldiers Sculpture
The show then went on to describe the furor that arose from the initial design that was accepted. A contest was held to select the winner whose design would become the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial and would be the representative piece for a deeply emotional national event. This wasn't some simple architectural contest. Because of the deep emotional investments from both sides of the issue, this contest was bound to be rancorous. An American designer named Maya Lin was awarded the $50,000 prize for her initial design selected by the committee. Yet, when it was unveiled to the public (prior to groundbreaking) there were many who were not satisfied with the choice. Many of these people wanted a more traditional memorial and finally, after much discussion, the third place finisher, Frederick Hart, was commissioned to create an addition to Ms. Lin's design. The Three Soldiers statue is the name of his addition. 

Maya-Lin
The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall (Ms. Lin's design) is the focal point of the whole Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. The Three Soldiers statue and the Vietnam Women's Memorial, make up the remainder of the Memorial. Ms Lin's design consists of two walls that come together at a point, 90 degrees to eachother. At the point of contact, the walls are ten feet high and as they emanate out from eachother, they decline to a height of eight inches. These walls contain the names of the dead and the missing in action from the Vietnam conflict. 

Items Left
On November 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial was dedicated. It has been a success from that day forward. It's main success, though, has been in it's healing powers. Many veterans have said that their lives turned around the day that they visited "The Wall". Whatever reasons there are that give this wall it's powers to heal, they work.

The wall also serves as a repository for mementos that the surviving family and friends of the honored want to leave for their loved ones. It's these momentos that become the hidden story of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial.

What always seems to get lost in controversies such as the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, are the individual, intimate stories about the people who these monuments are about in the first place. Memorial monuments are built to honor the dead but they are there to heal the living.  

One of the mementos left at the wall was a letter and a picture with the letter. I'm going to try to recreate the important section of the letter but it will be a paraphrase of the original. It says,

"Why didn't you shoot me? It seems as if we stopped and stared at each other for minutes, neither of us knowing what to do. I guess I was quicker on the draw and killed you first. I didn't want to kill you. I'm sorry that I killed you. When I found the picture of your family, I wanted to tell your family that I'm sorry that I killed you and destroyed their lives. Here is the picture of your family back."

War makes people do things that they would never do normally. Why this soldier chose to take the picture off the dead soldier is anyone's guess. I suspect that he probably didn't know either, yet, he kept it for all those years after. Obviously, from his letter, he was extremely guilty about killing the man. Writing his letter and leaving it, and the picture, at "The Wall" was his way of trying to relieve his guilt. 

This isn't the end of the story, though. Very soon after "The Wall" became the repository for so many mementos, the National Park Service (which runs the memorial) realized that the items that were being left were very personal, intimate items. They made the decision that they wouldn't throw anything that was left at the wall away, out of respect. Consequently, everything left at "The Wall" (which wasn't perishable), including the letter I'm telling you about, has been given a huge area in one of the Park Services buildings where they are catalogued and then stored. It is an unbelievable task and now holds several hundreds of thousands of items. 

As it turns out, the storing of these items turned out to be advantageous for our letter writer. A few years after leaving his letter and photo at "The Wall", the letter writer wanted to try to track down the family of the man he killed. As luck would have it, the Park Service was able to track down his letter along with his photograph and return it to him. The gentleman got lucky a second time when he was able to track down the family of the man who held a place in his heart since the moment that they met. 

Apparently, the family of the dead North Vietnamese soldier didn't have any information, for all these years, about how their loved one had died. Our guilty, letter-writing soldier, now had a chance to add closure to another soldier's family's grief. When our soldier met with the other soldier's family, he was able to tell them that their relative had died honorably, doing what he thought was right in protecting his country. Yet, there's one other aspect to this story. In the course of conversation with this family, the gentleman found out that the family had no surviving pictures of the dead soldier and his family. Upon hearing this, he was able to pull out of his pocket, the picture of the dead soldier and the members of his family and present it to the relatives of the dead soldier. They were overjoyed! This was the first time that they were able to see their fallen family member since he left for battle, shortly before he was killed! 

Not many soldiers get a chance to reconcile actions they've committed on the field of battle. Yet, for our soldier, guilt-ridden and looking for closure, this trip to Viet Nam was his reconciliation. It started, however, with his decision to write that letter in order to leave it, along with the picture, at the foot of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall.