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september/october 2007

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By Jim Belshaw
Ron Pasko says of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: “It’s like a black magnet.” Like so many others, the vice president of VVA Chapter 209 in Chicago cannot explain its power. He just knows he feels it. The Wall draws him in.

“It has the same effect on the guys in our organization, and it has the same effect on me,” he said. “I have no idea what it is, but I always want to go there.”

On Saturday, November 10, VVA will sponsor a huge parade on the National Mall marking the 25th anniversary of the dedication of The Wall. The event is expected to bring hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans, their families, and supporters to Washington in what is expected to be a seminal event in the history of the Vietnam veterans movement.

“We’re expecting the largest gathering of veterans in Washington since the dedication of The Wall in 1982,” said VVA President John Rowan. “We are inviting veterans of all wars to join us as we honor the men and women who served our nation during the Vietnam War.”

The festivities will begin at 10:00 a.m. with star-studded Opening Ceremonies at the parade’s starting point on Constitution Avenue at 7th Street. The parade will step off at 11:00 a.m. It will consist of individual participants, including many prominent Vietnam veterans from all walks of life; military vehicles; floats; motorcyclists; and marching bands from around the country. The parade will end near the Washington Monument grounds, where participants will take part in a variety of events, including unit reunions.

The parade “may be the last opportunity for Vietnam veterans to gather,” Rowan said. “We have no definitive ending date of our war to commemorate like veterans of World War II and Korea have. If we did choose 1975, the fifty-year commemoration would be 2025. That’s a very, very long way in the future for a generation of veterans that is now entering our sixties.”

HEALING, DUTY, REMEMBRANCE, BROTHERHOOD
In conversations with many veterans who are coming to Washington to march proudly in the parade, many words crop up repeatedly—healing, duty, remembrance, brotherhood. Steve Gaddis, president of the Vietnam Security Police Association, said 400 to 500 members and their families will be in Washington for the Parade. The organization began planning two years ago to
combine an annual gathering with the anniversary of The Wall.

“Some of our people have never been to The Wall,” he said. “They’ve avoided it. But we have some folks who regularly wash The Wall to help maintain it, too. We’ve been preparing for this for quite some time,” Gaddis said. “It’s remembering those we’ve lost. Part of our mission is to preserve their memory and to preserve our history. That’s what it’s about when we go to The Wall. For us, it’s remembering those who didn’t survive.”

Charlie Hobbs, president of VVA Chapter 203 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, sees it as a duty, something owed to his fellow Vietnam veterans. Three busloads of chapter members and their families are expected to make the trip.

“It’s a healing we all have to go through,” he said. “It draws us back every time. I never get tired of going to The Wall. Everyone’s been touched by it.”

Chuck Valen, parade coordinator for the 1st Signal Brigade Association, said about 60 people from the association will come to Washington to march in the Parade. He spoke of a “passion” about their service that continues to this day.

“As part of the association, the people are passionate about the contribution they made to their country,” he said. “A lot of us were 19 and 20 years old and even though I’ve had a successful career since Vietnam, the two tours I served there are probably the most important two years in my entire 58 years. The other dynamic is that we have brothers who are on that Wall and not a day goes by that we don’t think about them.”

Former Red Cross volunteer Maggie Hodge said every time she goes to The Wall “something happens.”

“The last time I was there, I was walking with a friend, and I just happened to look down, and there on The Wall was my surname, the maiden name I had when I was in Vietnam,” she said. “It stunned me. Out of all those names, it stood out. It was like a cousin saying, ‘Hello, I was there.’ It really touched me.”

Gabe Coronado, the Battalion Scribe of the 2nd Battalion 9th Marines Network, said a reunion had been planned around the 25th anniversary of The Wall and that 100 people were expected to attend. “It’s a unity of brothers,” he said. “We’ve all shared the same experience. We were young warriors at one time. We shared an experience no other person has shared except for a combat vet. It’s a brotherhood.”

One of those who cared for those combat veterans was Vietnam War nurse Joan Furey, who today is the Parade coordinator for the 71st Evacuation hospital. “The whole experience of being in Vietnam and coming home and having to deal with the atmosphere that was in the country at that time was for most of us who served very confusing and very conflicting,” she said. “Having to work through that, trying to get people to understand that serving in Vietnam was life altering was difficult.”

Much of the difficulty was—and remains—the challenge of explaining to those who never experienced the life-altering circumstances of Vietnam the importance of what the men and women did there and the impact it had on those around them.

Furey sees in The Wall a validation for Vietnam veterans. It is a testament that Vietnam veterans, at least as individuals, had been part of something in which they were able to give their best.

It wasn’t so much that they were extraordinary people, but that they were ordinary people called upon to do things that most Americans are never called upon to do, and that they found within themselves the resources to do it.

“What you did really mattered to the people around you and what they did really mattered to you,” she said. “The Wall is a venue for healing. It brings all that emotion to one place where we can both grieve and embrace the experience itself. The Wall was the first place since the war that Vietnam veterans could go and come together in a sense of joint purpose and pride and also mourn the loss of people we served with, and to mourn our own youth and innocence.”

Application forms for individuals and groups who would like to join the parade are available at http: //vva.org/25thEvent/event_info.htm or by calling toll free
877-727-2333.

 

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