There were military personnel, a full complement of reservists, and individuals without uniforms who appeared to be VietNam Vets. I found the last group to be the most impressive. They were easy to spot, about my age, and had a dark sadness behind their eyes.
I noticed one man kneeling at the wall, his fingers touching it tenderly. Then he did something I thought strange; he laid a couple of cigarettes on the ground below a name. I knew there was a long, sad story accompanying his deep sighs. I wanted to slip my arm around him and squeeze my love into him.
Somehow today, I felt as though I was going to visit my brother, Johnny. God, how I missed him! We had always been so close. It was always Johnny and me against the world, until our world was shattered in 1968. He was killed somewhere on the Cambodian border when he was only 20 years old.
For too many years, my anger was inexpressible. I found little comfort in hearing: "You've got to hold it together for your parents" or "You're so strong." Inexcusable statements such as: "Oh, it's *just* your brother - it could have been worse" or "He had no business being in that war to begin with," cut into my heart like a sharp sword.
I was never allowed to grieve for my brother the way I wanted and needed to. My heart had been filled with an overwhelming sadness and loss for too many years. I was hoping today was my chance to experience the feelings, to grieve, and to finally be able to move on with some resolution.
The anticipation of seeing his name
At the entrance to the field, the computerized information stand gave me directions to find his name, with a pencil and paper to do a "rubbing" of it. I was given a printout of information which included his name, rank, serial number; and surprisingly, how he was killed.
Reading the report brought tears to my eyes, and I felt that old lump in the pit of my stomach start to swell. I hated remembering that he had been killed by an implosion during a night firefight.
My mind wondered back to how he looked through his glass covered military coffin, dressed in his Army private's uniform. I wanted to slip my arm around him and squeeze my love into him, too, but I could not. I began to sense a familiar dull pain fill my chest as these memories popped into my mind. It felt as though an elephant was standing on my heart.
As I approached Johnny's special section of the wall, I noticed that a particular Vet followed me to the site. I lingered along the black shiny wall naming the noble young men and women until I found Johnny's name. Slowly, I rubbed my fingers over his name. I wanted to touch Johnny, but I could not.
I began to cry silently. I just stood there, holding Johnny's name and crying. When I finally looked around, I noticed the Vet was standing about 5 feet behind me. He approached me and said, "Go ahead, it's alright. You look like you need to do this."
Somehow, I knew he was familiar with my pain; I knew he absolutely understood how I was feeling. I felt he was an angel sent by Johnny to look over my shoulder, and I was finally allowed to grieve. He gave me tissue after tissue as I cried; but he never said, "Stop crying."
I felt the pain in the pit of my stomach grab my heart while, at the same time, I felt so safe, as though one of Johnny's old friends was right there with me. I didn't feel alone or the least bit uncomfortable. I felt secure enough to grieve at last.
The Vet put his arm around me and asked if I wanted him to bring a folding chair up to the wall. I declined, and my sobbing ebbed until I could talk again. Then, I began to notice my surroundings.
Miniature U.S. Flags, placed in front of each black, shiny section of the wall, looked like lonely sentinels protecting their dead comrades. Small remembrances of flowers and trinkets were placed sporadically in front of the wall by others, with their own special connections to these Vets.
Suddenly, I knew Johnny was not alone. I had always felt so sad because he had died in a strange, far-off country, without any family. Now I understood.
These men on the wall, and the man whose arms were holding me, are as much his family as I am. Somehow, we are all together sharing our grief.