by Sheila Luna
The Vietnam Wall rises out of the ground, a big wave of polished black granite with 58,267 names glittering in the sun. I weave through the Memorial Day crowd—bandana-wearing bikers, tattooed sailors, kids wielding ice cream cones, selfie-snapping couples, and World War II vets that are in Washington D.C. to commemorate the 70th anniversary of that war’s end, some in wheelchairs, some pulling oxygen tanks. Visitors touch the Wall in reverence. Some shake their heads in disbelief. Others offer white roses and handmade cards. I notice how we are, all of us, reflected in the Wall behind the etched names—past and present moving within the thousands of Vietnam vets who died or are still missing. The engraved names seem to come alive as they pick up the reflections of clouds and sun-dappled beech trees.
“It symbolizes a wound that is closed and healing,” someone says, pointing to the apex. Starting at eight inches on either side, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is actually two walls, each 247 feet long that rise to ten feet. Necks cock to get a glimpse.
“It reminds me of a sinking ship,” says another.
Adjacent to the Wall, Medal of Honor recipients gather to dedicate a set of postage stamps that honor their service. One says Memorial Day is a day of mourning for him. Even though he is hailed as a hero, he remembers the day when nine of his fellow soldiers were killed.
“The tears are always here,” he says pointing to his eye.
A lone bugler plays “Taps” and now I have tears. Haunting tones vibrate and linger in the air. These twenty-four melancholy notes still somehow echo rest and peace. I think of my father. They played “Taps” at his funeral. I remember how they folded the flag and handed it to my mother.
Being in D.C. this weekend puts the holiday in perspective. No longer just poolside margaritas and a day off from work, Memorial Day is a reflection of history, of America, and a reminder that, regardless of our stance on U.S. policy in Vietnam or any war, we should grieve for and thank veterans who were willing to die for our freedoms.
As the Wall gets taller with more names, it represents a buildup of emotions that coincided with escalation of the Vietnam War. The names, inscribed in order of the date of casualty, show the war as a series of individual human sacrifices. I touch the Wall and wonder what happened to each one. How they died. Who they left behind. Running my fingers over the etched names, I remember my connection to a soldier in Vietnam.
Ushered into adolescence with mood rings, marijuana, and the My Lai Massacre, I wore waist-long hair parted down the middle, tie-dyed shirts, and a beaded band around my forehead. Even though I wasn’t old enough, I wanted to be a hippie. The words “peace” and “freedom” were sewn into my clothing and etched on my school supplies.
“Thought it was a nightmare, but it’s all so true,” I sang with the radio, wiggling my skinny, bell-bottomed torso. The black light in my bedroom illuminated posters of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Mary Tyler Moore. “They told me don’t go walking slow, devil’s on the loose.”
“Turn that down,” my mom said, banging on the door. “Come and eat.”
“Better run through the jungle,” I belted out. “Don’t look back to see.” I returned to earth when she barged into my pseudo-psychedelic world.
“Ever heard of knocking?” I yelled.
“I did. You are going to destroy your eardrums, young lady.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said, huffing. “I have a lot of studying to do.”
“I can see that,” she said, scanning my bedroom floor bedecked with album covers. Stepping between the Rolling Stones and the Partridge Family, as if cautiously wading through the Mekong River, she extended her arm, “Come and eat. Now.”
My siblings and I gathered around the table every evening because my parents said it was important that we eat together to remain a close family. That evening, my brothers were pretending to be Spock and Kirk, while my little sister was nonchalantly feeding our three-legged terrier under the table. During the waning years of the Vietnam War, Walter Cronkite would join us for dinner via a 12-inch black and white TV situated among a display of copper Jell-O molds of fruit and fish. He shocked the country with the number of dead and wounded and subjected us to images of children in faraway lands who had been crippled and burned and killed by bombs. Our bombs.
“Why do they force men to go to war?” I asked, interrupting a “Twilight Zone” argument between Kirk and Spock.
“It’s called the draft,” said my father, as he scraped the rest of his macaroni and cheese onto his Wonder Bread.
“Isn’t that kind of like slavery?” I asked. “Do you believe in the draft?”
“I don’t think we should be in Vietnam,” he responded. “It’s a pointless war.”
This surprised me because he loved to tell war stories about when he was on a frigate in the Pacific during World War II. He was a sailor, like Popeye, and I was proud of him. And he was always proud of his country. I had heard that some anti-war protesters were spitting on returning soldiers and throwing rocks and garbage at them. I could tell it made my father very sad.
As my mom served the chocolate pudding, Mr. Cronkite disrupted our conversation with befuddling statistics. He said that the average infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II saw about 40 days of combat in four years. Due to the mobility of the helicopter, soldiers in Vietnam endured combat about 240 days in one year.
“Poor kids,” said my dad shaking his head. “But you need to finish your dinner and do your homework and take off that goofy headband. You look like one of those Charlie Manson creepos.”
I knew all the Creedence Clearwater Revival songs by heart, but didn’t understand what they meant. I had no idea that fortunate sons were boys who escaped the draft because they were rich. Later I would realize that the song “Fortunate Son” was about the frustration of Americans forced overseas to fight, while sons of politicians dodged the draft. I knew there was a war going on, but I could not visualize men running for their lives through the dense jungles of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Like any good hippie, I donned peace signs and love beads. I was against the war. But it didn’t consume me. My brothers were too young to be drafted, fortunately, and I was too young to care. My priorities were learning how to play “Here Comes the Sun” on the guitar and obtaining a driver’s permit.
Until a revolution bombed my juvenile reality.
I often walked home from school with my friend Kate. Her mother made the best coconut cream pie and sang like Peggy Lee. Sometimes we would stick pencils in her mom’s robin’s nest of a hairdo, piled high atop her already elongated head. That day, her mom wasn’t singing and there was no pie. She told Kate that her Uncle Jack from Wisconsin had been shot down in Vietnam. “He’s MIA,” she said, a tear trolling down her long face. I’d heard that term before, but never knew what it meant. “Missing in action,” she clarified. Uncle Jack’s friend was badly wounded and got to come home, but he wasn’t talking to anybody. I met Uncle Jack once at a Christmas party. He was funny. Now he was dead. The war had infiltrated my world, like troops behind enemy lines.
Kate’s mom became involved in a grassroots movement called Voices in Vital America (VIVA), which distributed Prisoner of War bracelets to raise awareness. Each nickel-plated bracelet was embossed with the name of a POW or MIA and the date he was taken prisoner or declared missing. They came with little stickers that indicated either POW (white star in a blue circle) or MIA (blue star in a white circle). The bracelet’s owner pledged to wear it at all times until the war was over and all prisoners released. I gave her $2.50 and she ordered one for me.
When my bracelet arrived, I was surprised to find that my POW bore my last name. I immediately felt a connection. My bracelet said Lieutenant Commander Dennis A. Moore 10/27/65. A Navy man, like my dad, he had already been in prison for six years. The letter that accompanied it said that Dennis Moore, the pilot of an F8E single-engine aircraft on a combat mission over North Vietnam, was shot down near a city called Hoa Binh and captured. A wave of foreboding engulfed me. I applied the appropriate sticker and slid the bracelet on my arm. Like a promise ring, I wore it faithfully.
“What’s that on your arm?” my boyfriend asked as he searched for a baggie in his glove compartment. Clyde was two years older and said that we would elope someday. When he looked at me, my eyes rolled around in their sockets. I was in love. Or so I thought.
Having just picked me up for school, he took a slight detour and pulled into the dry riverbed to smoke a doobie. I never understood the attraction of getting stoned, but I went along with it because I thought he was cute and cool and I wanted a ride to school. I also felt older with him, and rebellious, like a hippie. If my parents only knew the real Clyde, they would have grounded me for a month, and maybe even banned television.
“I’m doing my part for the POWs,” I said, proudly, displaying my bracelet. A few weeks ago, “pow” was just a word in the comics. Now I had a cause. “We’re putting pressure on the government to do something.”
“Are we now?” He sucked on the sloppily rolled joint, held his breath and squinted as if he couldn’t decide whether to enjoy the drag or laugh at me.
“There’s a war going on. Guys a little older than you are being tortured and killed.”
“They are baby killers,” he said, exhaling the smoke in my face.
“That was an isolated incident. The soldiers are under a lot of pressure, and probably under the influence, like you.”
He turned up the radio and the Grateful Dead blasted through the desert air. I could tell where his priorities were and for the first time since I started high school, I felt as if I had risen above the stoner mentality. Drinking Southern Comfort underneath the bleachers at football games suddenly felt trivial compared to what my Dennis might be going through at that moment. He could be in a cage or a hole-in-the-wall prison. What if he was starving or tied up with iron chains?
“It’s a pointless war,” I added. “Don’t you get it?”
“And that little armband is going to help?” He passed me the spit-laden joint and I pretended to inhale.
“I’m late for my poetry class,” I said. “Can we go?”
“Whatever you say.” He revved the engine and we sped away, leaving the strains of Jerry Garcia in a cloud of dust.
In no time, more kids at school wore POW bracelets and so did thousands across the country, regardless of their views of the War, as a testament that POWs should not be forgotten. By the War’s end, VIVA had distributed five million bracelets. For me it was more than just a symbolic gesture. I felt close to Dennis and I felt responsible. I’d lay in bed at night and run my fingers over the indentation that spelled Lt. Com. Dennis A. Moore 10/27/65. It felt like Braille. It felt like a prayer. Sometimes he would haunt my dreams—beady-eyed Viet Cong burning him with cigarettes or whipping him like in the movie Spartacus.
In February 1973, the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam. Troops returned home and the first planeload of POWs left Hanoi. I remember watching the broadcast of “Operation Homecoming,” hoping that one of the weary prisoners stepping off the plane was Dennis. I was happy for the soldiers who were finally able to reunite with their families. Older and a little wiser, I also knew that the troop withdrawal was not a cause for rejoicing. The war suddenly felt very sad and futile. So many lives lost. So much destruction. Infused with whiffs of global awareness, instead of marijuana, I began to ponder the fragility of life.
Several weeks later, I saw his name in the paper followed by Status: Released POW. He was safe. It felt as if a relative had just survived a risky heart transplant. I took off my bracelet and broke it in half, as directed by the instructions. The options were to send it to the released prisoner or keep it. I kept it. In my mind, I wanted to keep him close, and to save a piece of our history.
Those who wore MIA bracelets could not take them off until the missing soldiers (or bodies) were located. There are still 1500 MIAs unaccounted for, grieved for by their families, their names etched in the cool granite of the Vietnam Wall. And there are POWs who are still held captive, which disturbs many returned prisoners because they abided by a code that none would return until all were released.
I spot a seventyish man on bended knee in front of the Wall, crying, whispering something to his dead buddy. He places a photo against the Wall of a smiling young man in a crisp white uniform. I can only imagine his grief and I realize that the grieving process is never really over, no matter if it’s for a friend killed in war or the death of a beloved parent. The wave of sadness rises and falls, reflected in the teary eyes of friends and in the shiny granite of monuments.
Now returned from D.C., I open my childhood jewelry box, and there’s my POW bracelet, like a long lost friend. I run my index finger over the name. My POW was one of the unfortunate sons who experienced the atrocities of the Vietnam War; but he was fortunate that he survived. When I was in high school, I couldn’t fathom how people could kill, torture, and annihilate entire populations because of religion or oil or a line in the sand. I still can’t. I like to “imagine all the people living life in peace,” as John Lennon once dreamed. But as long as there is evil in the world, there will be war. And, as long as there is war, we will depend on people like Lieutenant Commander Dennis A. Moore.
Sheila Luna holds a Master of Liberal Studies, with a concentration in creative nonfiction writing, from Arizona State University. Her personal essays and poetry have recently been published in Spry Literary Journal, Pilgrim. Sotto Voce Magazine, and Every Day Poems. She is currently working on a memoir about her experience living in the wilderness of northwestern Montana with a mountain man, where she battled the elements, struggled with a chronic disease, and ultimately discovered her own identity through the solitude of nature and the healing power of art. She now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she enjoys the luxuries of running water and electricity.