On May 4th, The Moving Wall, a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., came to UNH campus to spend five days. I had the honor of joining UNH’s Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Committee in pulling this event together. My predecessor, Denny Byrne, had gotten the ball rolling and remained an integral part of the huge team effort required, but I had plenty to do as I coordinated with Paul and Kim Chen, the Moving Wall team who drove the memorial to us from Michigan, as well as with many offices across UNH campus and in the Durham and Portsmouth communities who helped create, promote and execute the event.
I thought I would write about this extraordinary experience sooner, but I have been at a loss for words. But I’ll just start now. Two important men in my life served in Vietnam: my father Jonathan Pasternack; and my mother’s longtime boyfriend, Gary Delong. Both are lost to me now. I have never visited the Wall in D.C. but I have been aware of its significance, controversy, and beauty. The Moving Wall, while only half the size of the original, allows people all over the country to experience the profound impact of the memorial’s design, which currently displays 58,315 names of those who died in combat in Vietnam. Its reflective surface allows the viewer to see him or herself reflected, as well as anyone else simultaneously looking, as well as the surrounding environment. The names are not arranged alphabetically, but in a circular chronological order by date of death, with the earliest deaths in the center of the V-shaped memorial, and the dates moving outward to the East, then jumping to the far West edge and working back to the center. The V becomes a circle in which the end is the beginning all over again. I did feel deeply shaken by the reflections of people, trees, clouds, and my own frowning face overlaid upon the names engraved on the Wall. And I did mourn for the circle of combat-related death that is still turning in its groove.
The long weekend of the Wall’s visit was an emotional rollercoaster. It was inspiring to see the crowds brave the rain to show their respect and confront their losses–Paul Chen estimated that we had 8-10,000 people come through during the installation. It was also heart-warming to work with so many volunteers, from on-campus and across NH, MA and ME, who made it a point to honor a generation of veterans who suffered terribly in combat and when they returned home. I also met and talked to many veterans and their families and heard their stories. A key part of the job for anyone bringing the Wall to their town is providing guidance to visitors looking for names to see, to touch, and even do a name rubbing to bring home. Many people don’t realize how hard it will be to navigate among all those names. So we had one paper directory, two laptops, and several Wall apps on our smart phones, which helped us locate the panel and line number for a specific name. Not everyone could find the name they sought–only combat fatalities are on the Wall, so sometimes after looking we’d realize the veteran in question had died of combat-related injuries after coming home. (At the D.C. memorial there is a plaque dedicated In Memory of some of these deaths, and loved ones can request that their lost veteran be added to it.) Other times a veteran would be horrified to realize he knew his buddy’s nickname but not his full name. Sometimes we could play detective and narrow things down by the birth city or state of the loved one. Several times, I found a fallen warrior’s profile information on the computer database after a prolonged search, only to have his buddy dissolve into tears at my side when a picture popped up, inevitably a grainy black and white of a 19- or 20-year-old boy. “He didn’t have nothing,” one man said to me through tears. “He had nothing until he joined the service. And then he got himself together, he even got married, and then he went over. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, wiping his cheeks. “He was my best friend in high school.” We took him to the Wall to see his friend’s name.
That’s how it was. At night, there were beautiful lights pointed at the Wall, provided by UNH Facilities, and lights on the flags, provided by the NH Patriot Guard Riders. Overnight security and quite a bit of daytime camaraderie was provided by several motorcycle clubs–so huge thanks to the NH PGR, Combat Warriors MC, and the Blue Reapers, as well as individual bikers who joined the procession or signed up for overnights. UNH ROTC cadets were on hand and the UNH Trumpet Studio played gorgeous, stirring Taps each night. There are too many people to thank, but you can read the brochure I designed for more information and acknowledgements.
For more about the DC memorial’s history and design, click here. For more about The Moving Wall, click here. And for a marvelous video created by DCAT’s Phil Kincade, click here. Let’s keep this generation’s awful losses in mind as we consider how we deploy our troops in the future, and how we will welcome them home.