BY FRED J. WILHELM
A light rain is falling. Marilyn and I hear something in
the distance, a voice, but we cannot make out what is being
said. Walking closer, I can hear names being read one by
one. We are in Washington, D.C., to visit two old friends,
Raymond J. Kiesler and Charles Hicks.
Closer now, I can
see The Wall and veterans, friends, and families listening
in the rain to the names being read.
walk by the vendors, and we look at the Three Soldiers, at
their equipment, the M-60 and the M-16. And always in the
air, the names are being read, one by one.
I gaze at the
people touching and staring at the names, hugging each other
and leaving mementos. A stage with a podium stands in the
grassy area. From here, more than 58,000 names are being
read day and night until they are all heard by the men and
women who have been here for 25 years.
I ask the man
with the sign-in book if there are any open time slots to
read names. He looks and yes, there is an open time in 30
minutes. I think he will give me a sheet with five names;
instead, he hands me Sheet 545 with thirty names. Now I’m
really nervous, feeling like an F.N.G. in front of all these
We move to the seats in front of the
stage so I can study my names. Some are easy: Terrence Lee
Priest, Jackie Kenneth Reed, Gregory John Scott, Leon Simms,
Richard A. Worth. And with others, I know I am in trouble:
Edward Charles Rozanski, Varde Weston Smith III, Mervyn Donald
Tedds, Dieter Hans Burger, Merle Deane Turner. While I study
my names, other names are being read, and they fill the air
time already? It’s four o’clock. I move on
stage with the other readers. I fall in line behind the man
with Sheet 544 and wait my turn, watching those reading before
me and getting more nervous. All read slowly and with dignity;
a few voices crack. I silently read my names again, roll
the sheet in my hands, and step up to the podium. There are
people behind me at The Wall and in front of me in the seats,
all listening. I take off my Chapter 311 hat, set it on the
podium, and start to read: Gilbert Solano Salazar, Albert
Willard Santos, Keith Francis Sharp, Michael Francis Shea,
Manford Dalvis Stewart.
It is going okay; I try to look at
the audience after each name. Jack Edwin Telling, Fredrick
Lamar Thrower, Lawrence Daniel Torrez, Eric Michael Wardwell,
Steven James Wright. It’s starting to get to me, and
I feel a lump growing in my throat. Arnold Benson, Jr., William
Robert Brennan, Elmer Don Byrd. I start to lose it, my eyes
water, and I am thinking they would be my age now, and I
could have been in their places on this list. David Calvitti,
Donald William Downing, Earl William Fernandez.
I stop for air, no longer
able to look up, fearing I won’t
be able to continue; I do not want to let them down. I catch
my breath: Charles Hartsell Gobble, Thomas Patterson Hanson.
I feel like The Wall is listening as I breathe in again,
closer to the end: William Eugene Hargrove and George Ward
Henry, Jr. My voice cracking, tears in my eyes, I say “God
bless you all” as I turn and salute The Wall.
way down the stage steps, a fellow veteran reaches out, gives
me a hug, and says, “Welcome home.”
walks over to me. With tears in our eyes, we hug and then
go to The Wall to visit Ray and Charles, who have been waiting
so long. In the air, there’s the sound
of the names being read, one by one.
Fred J. Wilhelm
is a member of VVA Des Plaines, Illinois, Chapter 311. He
served with the 272nd Military Police Company, First Field
Force, Vietnam, October 1968 to January 1970. He can be reached
by email at GarBird11@aol.com.