Bearing Witness

On the morning of Friday, November 10th, I walked from the Greyhound Bus Terminal down to the Capitol, then past the Washington Monument and eventually reached the Mall (perhaps some 50 blocks or so). I was here 25 years ago for the dedication and have returned today for a very special tribute.

Even before I see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial I’m able to hear voices in the distance, their tone solemn and ritualistic. I arrive and am directed to yellow-jacketed marshals and express to them the following: I’d been an Army Advisor in Vietnam. I’d been unable to commit to any specific time in their program. I was content simply to be present, to bear witness…and if the opportunity existed for me to participate, I would be honored to do so.

They were gracious and suggested that I stand by. The day was overcast, chilly and rainy, a typical late autumnal DC afternoon. The attendance was relatively sparse… but the reading of names was ongoing. I had a sense that those of us here came for reasons perhaps difficult for some to articulate …but none of us would be deterred by mere weather.

The Reading of Names had begun on Wednesday at noon and had continued from 5AM to 1AM each following day. (“From can’t see at mornin’ til can’t see at night”.) It is now Friday, about 12:30, the time frame, mid 1968. Describing the task is simple: Each volunteer reads a page of 30 names, each inscribed on The Wall, the names of men (and infrequently, women) that’d died in Vietnam. It is chronological. Readers had reserved (some weeks and months ahead) the opportunity to read a page that included the name of someone personally meaningful to them.

Tho I was there for only for a few hours on a single day, I watched fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, wives, grandchildren, commanders and soldiers stand before that microphone, wanting to bear witness. Each voice, whether husky, choked with emotion, halting, or declamatory seems committed to the premise that every name (as well as the name to which they have a personal connection), that every name matters. That person is missed, it is a loss both personal and heartfelt…and that the simple act of stating their name, out loud, has meaning and significance. It is a very human ritual, ancient, fundamental, healing.

You needed to be there to appreciate the impact of this simple act. It continued, unabated, seemingly unending, thru time and weather and light and dark, for many days. Eventually I was assigned a page, mounted the stage and stood in line. As I waited I made certain that I was comfortable with the pronunciation of each name. My turn came, I approached the mike and began to read. I felt many things –proud that I could be a part of this ritual, moved by knowing how much extended family was represented by each name…I felt a sense of responsibility and awe and service. My list ended and I walked from the podium, feeling as I do after rising from the communion rail. At peace.

Our deaths in Vietnam numbered fewer than 60,000, many more than 9/11, many less than WW II. Yet to hear the unrelenting recitation of their names lends humanity to a cold statistic. I was approached and again assigned a page but the scheduled reader then appeared. The staffers were apologetic and I reassured them, it was not a problem. I had come to support. It would have been nice to have read the name of someone with whom I served or trained, but no matter. I was content to bear witness, to hear the names read, confident that each name, each represented life, was being acknowledged and accorded the honor it deserved.

As I waited, I spoke for a few minutes with a tall woman who’d introduced herself to me. Janis was now a member of the Memorial Commission’s Board of Directors, but back in the day had been an Army nurse at Cam Ranh Bay. I shared with her memories of my nurse at 3rd Field Hospital. Janis immediately understood how much having finally found my nurse last year and being able to thank her, meant to me. She later introduced me to Jan Scruggs, the Vietnam veteran primarily responsible for the creation of The Wall. I thanked him for having given to us all this place of healing. The Wall is where we give ourselves permission to fully connect with our feelings, without shame or reservation or judgment. It is to us a sacred place.

After a few hours, I said my goodbyes, visited a tent to receive a program and memento of my participation and began my walk to the Metro.

(It’s now Monday, midday. I’ve just returned to my home in LA. I turn on my TV, which is tuned to CNN. They are re-airing the speech delivered yesterday by Gen. Colin Powell, commemorating the 25th anniversary of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Wall. And then I notice standing just behind and to his left, a tall blonde woman. It is Lt Col. Janis Nark USAR (Ret).