I have visited the memorial several times, and I was reminded of that by a piece on National Public Radio this morning. Today, April 30th, is the 40th anniversary of the evacuation of U.S. personnel and associates from Vietnam.
For some time, I have wanted to go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. I have visited before, but have never visited with a mission. And so, riding to The Wall became my personal pilgrimage, and maybe closure. The proximity of the Moto Guzzi National Rally made it more possible.
I left the Moto Guzzi National Rally one day early. My reason was the weather. It also meant that I was going to the memorial one day earlier than planned taxing my mental and emotional preparedness. It turned out to be a good decision. For that night, a storm rolled through the area downing trees and power lines. D.C., like many other cities, was in gridlock. I would never have been able to ride to The Wall if I had waited one day as planned.
Uncle Sam called me up for active duty in March, 1970; I was drafted. In November, I received orders for Vietnam and was home by Christmas on leave. In January, 1971, I went to Vietnam and was assigned to a Signal Corps unit on the Mekong River at Binh Thuy in the Can Tho Province, the 52nd Signal Battalion, HQ Company. In October, I received an early out and was home three weeks before my 21st birthday. When we processed out of Long Binh, we were ordered to turn in all our jungle fatigues. The only thing we could keep were our boots. We came home in khaki uniforms. I have kept those boots for 40 years.
You have probably heard many times that the soldiers returning from Vietnam were not treated so well. I can attest to that. What happened to our beliefs that all soldiers were welcomed home, just like in the movies about WWII. Not so Vietnam. But, time has changed that with military action and wars in the Middle East, and my personal mission to The Wall was born.
I parked the motorcycle on the street next to the Potomac, about a half-a-mile from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I dug through my bags for the things I brought. After securing the bike, I started walking towards the memorial. I pulled out my phone and sent a message to my wife.
TXT: “I am parked and walking to The Wall.”
Lin: “My heart is with you love.”
I nearly lost it reading that text message from Lin. She is the incredible love of my life, I could feel her presence with me. I began to think of all the names on The Wall and loved ones and family members who never got to express their love or even say goodbye. All that is left is an engraved name on The Wall, and the many objects left behind.
Planning this mission, I wanted to write something to my brothers and sisters on The Wall. I took a copy with me.
I walked the entire length of The Wall, looking at the names and occasionally leaning against the wall. The polished granite is remarkable, for you cannot look at this memorial without seeing yourself. I walked back to towards the middle and found an appropriate spot. I placed my 41-year-old boots on the curb and the copy of my prose behind it.
Pilgrimage to the Wall
Like so many other veterans from the Vietnam War I wonder why my name is not on this wall. Lucky, I guess. I returned home with only memories and my boots.
So many names etched in stone on a black granite wall memorializing an unpopular war.
The experiences of those who returned are burned into our memories and have marked on our lives.
Good memories of friendships and a brotherhood of comrades, bad memories of warfare, destruction and death. Memories of coming home to an unappreciative nation.
Our country has learned a great lesson from us, taught by our experience, the lessons of war and the returning soldier. You on The Wall would be so proud.
We have learned to separate the politics of war from the warrior. No matter the conflict, our soldiers are now treated as the heroes that they are, and all are welcomed home.
Rest in peace brothers and sisters. We think of you often. You are missed.
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More than forty years ago, I returned from that land that caused our nation so much grief and changed so many lives. I have come to pay homage to The Wall—a pilgrimage. I am returning my boots, for I no longer need them.
D. B. Miller, Sgt. E-5, US Army, Republic of Vietnam, 1971.
I stepped back, saluted and then walked away.
TXT MSG to Lin: “Mission accomplished.”
As I walked away, I turned to look back. Visitors to the memorial were already starting to stop and read to see just what was left behind.
Some photographed my boots. I heard one young boy say, “Look! Are those real boots?” Yes they are. They were mine. They belong to the memorial, now.
Rest in Peace Brothers and Sisters on The Wall, and Welcome Home to those who returned.
Peace be with you.
Note: Published on July 4th, Independence Day. Enjoy your freedoms.