Visit to The Wall

It was late November and a coworker and I were in the Washington DC area on a typical business trip. One night we decided to do some sightseeing in DC. On a previous trip I was very limited on time and saw a few museums but was not able to see much else. We wanted to visit the Vietnam memorial, also known as “The Wall.” My co-worker served in Vietnam and lost a good friend there. We drove and parked when we saw a sign for The Wall and parked. We walked but we could not find The Wall. As we followed the walkway we found pedestals with books of names and a diagram of the memorial. My coworker searched the book for his friend’s name and I wandered toward a large statue of three Vietnam soldiers. It was dark and I still did not see The Wall. It must be very close. I looked over my shoulder and saw an eerie dark, granite, faintly lit wall. It caught me completely off-guard. It was so long. I did not expect it to be so very, very long. The footpath that we used initially followed the top of The Wall. We had walked parallel to The Wall just above it without realizing that The Wall was just below us.

I stopped near the statue of the three soldiers. My coworker continued searching the book for his lost friend. I followed the path in front of The Wall. My eyes followed the polished granite as I walked ever so slowly. I passed more and more names engraved into The Wall. Each granite panel got larger and each held more names. Each was the name of a parent’s child and each left behind a wife, sweetheart, child, family member, or friend. Each had a history, personality, favorite food, goal, and life. Each name left sorrow and memories in its wake.

I was too young to serve in Vietnam. My eldest brother was a helicopter pilot. He almost never talked about the war. He refused to watch movies or documentaries about Vietnam. I did not know a single name on The Wall. I was too young to fully understand about Vietnam or war. My brother would came home wearing nice uniforms and I remember how my Mom hugged him before he returned. She held him tight and did not let go for a long, long time. I remember wondering why she hugged him for so long. I thought that he would fly his helicopter and come home again. I did not understand that he might not come back. I was too young to comprehend war.

I walked very slowly and following name after name and panel after panel. Each panel grew larger and contained more and more names. The panels grew and soon towered over my head. Name after name and then there was a small wreath of flowers. Did a wife, sister, brother, parent, or child leave the wreath? Was it left by a little girl for her daddy that she only knew through old photos? Was it left by a little boy who missed playing catch with his dad? Was it left by a lady who used to be a starry-eyed young woman waiting for her one-and-only-forever-sweetheart to finish his tour of duty? Was it left by an grieving, elderly widower who lost his only son?

My eyes followed the names on The Wall. I saw little flags and a larger wreath made from gold-painted leaves. The wreath had a paper banner with initials and a date ending in 1967. Date of death, no doubt. People left bouquets, flowers, and flags in front of The Wall. I saw a vase with a single, large, pincushion dahlia. Perhaps it was the favorite flower of one of the names.

The Wall was getting personal. Why would a mass of granite and thousands of unknown names affect me? I did not know a single name on The Wall. It should not affect me like this. The Wall was supposed to be a tourist destination like the Smithsonian or a memorial to be seen in quiet, somber respect, like the Alamo. It was not supposed to be personal. The Wall caught me completely off-guard. I was not prepared.

My coworker rejoined me. He found the location of his lost friend’s name. It was on line 122 on one of the very tall panels. We found the panel and I started at the top of the panel and tried to count the rows. The top name seemed to be about eight feet above the path. At 122 I ran my hand across a few lines above and below my finishing point. "It should be somewhere in this area," I said. I knew I miscounted since the top of the granite panel was so far above us. "Here," my coworker said softly as he pointed to a name.

We walked back on the same path and the panels grew smaller. My coworker walked up the path to the statue of the three soldiers. I walked to a dark place and sat on a bench. I did not want to sit on a bench near a light. I looked at the long, massive, polished wall. It looked like a simple wall now with no names visible. I cried and thought of all the names. I thought of the flowers and flags and wreaths. The Wall was not supposed to be personal. I thought of the "Daddy’s girl," the infant "man of the house," the mothers, fathers, sweethearts, friends, brothers, and sisters of those names. But The Wall is not about names. It is about the people who were loved, who were lost, but who will never be forgotten.

If you find yourself in the Washington DC area I urge you to visit The Wall. But do yourself a favor and visit it at night away from the crowds. Be alone when your fingers touch the names etched in granite. Try to visualize who left the flowers, or wreath, or flag behind. Visit it at night so you can mourn in peace for those who gave their lives. Touch the names and let those names touch you. Then find a bench in the dark and dry your eyes.

— Tony Cataldo (10/30/92 revised 5/2016)

Some Facts About Those on The Wall

I saw this on a Facebook post and need to verify the numbers.

  • Names on The Wall: 58,267
  • 39,996 were 22 years old or younger
  • 8,283 were 19 years old
  • 33,103 were 18 years old
  • 12 were 17 years old
  • 5 were 16 years old
  • There are 3 sets of fathers and sons on The Wall
  • 31 sets of parents lost 2 of their sons
  • 997 were killed on their first day
  • 1,448 were killed on their last day
  • 8 women are on The Wall (nurses)
  • 244 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor during the war and 153 of them are on The Wall