The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

By Fred J. Wilhelm

A light rain is falling as my wife, Marilyn,and I walk along theside of the ReflectingPool. Halfway to the Lincoln Memorial, I hear something in the distance – a voice – but I cannot make out what is being said. Walking closer, I can hear the sound of names being read, one by one. We are in Washington, DC, to visit two old friends, Raymond J. Kiesler and Charles Hicks. They have been waiting here for 25 years, and it is time for us to say hello.

Closer now, I can see The Wall in the distance – along with the people, veterans, friends, and families, listening to the names being read, one by one, into the rainy afternoon air.

We walk by the vendors, but I can only half-heartedly look at the patches and pins. I see my own unit patch lying on a table, and it makes me feel that I am in the right place – that I belong here. Nervous, we walk the path and look at the Three Soldiers – their equipment, the M60 and the M16, and at the soldiers themselves, preserved in that monument – forever young – we look and remember. And always in the air, the names being read, one by one.

Closer now, I can see The Wall in the distance – along with the people, veterans, friends, and families, listening to the names being read, one by one, into the rainy afternoon air.

I gaze around to see people at The Wall, touching, etching, staring at names, hugging, and leaving memorials at the base. A temporary stage with a podium is set up in the middle of a grassy area. This is the source of the sound of 58,000-plus names being read day and night until they are all heard by the men and women who have been here for 25 years.

I walk to the base of the stage and ask the man with the sign-in book if there are any open time slots to read names. He looks, and yes, there is an open time in 30 minutes. Thinking he will give me a sheet with five names, instead he hands me sheet #545, with 30 names, and now I am really nervous, feeling like an FNG in front of all these people.

We move to the eating area in front of the stage where I can study my names. Some are easy: Terrence Lee Priest, Jackie Kenneth Read, Gregory John Scott, Leon Simms, and Richard A. Worth. With some of the names I know I am in trouble: Edward Charles Rozanski, Varde Weston Smith III, Mervyn Donald Tedds, Dieter Hans Burger, and Merle Deane Turner. While I study my list of names, new names are being read, one by one, filling the air around us.

My time to read already? I move onto the stage with the other readers. I fall in line behind the reader for sheet #544 and wait my turn, watching those reading before me, and getting more nervous. All read slowly and with a quiet dignity. A few voices crack. I read my names again, roll my sheet in my hands, and step up to the podium. There are people behind me at The Wall, and in front of me in the seats, all listening. I take off my hat, set it on the podium, and start to read: Gilbert Solano Salazar, Albert Willard Santos, Keith Francis Sharp, Michael Francis Shea, and Manford Dalvis Stewart.

I stop for air, no longer able to look up – fearing I won’t be able to continue. I do not want to let them down. I catch my breath

It is going OK. I try to look at the audience after each name. Jack Edwin Telling, Fredrick Lamar Thrower, Lawrence Daniel Torrez, Erick Michael Wardwell, Steven James Wright. It is starting to get to me, and I feel emotions kicking in – a lump in my throat. Arnold Benson Jr., William Robert Brennan, Elmer Don Byrd, and I start to lose it. My eyes water, and I am thinking they would be my age now, and I could have been in their place on this list. David Calvitti, Donald William Downing, Earl William Fernandez.

I stop for air, no longer able to look up – fearing I won’t be able to continue. I do not want to let them down. I catch my breath. Charles Hartsell Gobble, Thomas Patterson Hanson. I feel like the whole area around The Wall is listening as I breathe in again – closer to the end – William Eugene Hargrove and George Ward Henry Jr. My voice cracking, tears in my eyes, I say, “God bless you all,” as I turn and salute The Wall.

On my way down the stage steps, a fellow veteran who saw me having a rough time with the reading gave me a hug and said, “Welcome home.”

Marilyn walks over, and with tears in our eyes, we hug and then go to The Wall to visit Ray and Charles, who have been waiting so long – and in the air, the sound of the names being read, one by one.

 

Fred J. WilhelmFred J. Wilhelm was in the U.S. Army from May 1968 to January 1970. He spent 14 months in South Vietnam with the 1st Field Force, 272nd M.P. Co, The Fighting Deuce, from October 1968 to January 1970. You can contact him at GarBird11@aol.com. This article previously appeared in The VVA Veteran magazine.