The Wall That Heals ~ Reflecting on its Visit to VA Bedford

The Wall That Heals after dark. The scale model of Mya Lin’s Viet Nam Memorial visited the VA Bedford campus last weekend ~ Image, Jon O’Connor (c) 2022 all rights reserved

 

~ Contributed by Jon O’Connor
Past Commander,  Anthony/Hunt/Hamilton American Legion Post 221

The Wall That Heals – Brief Historical Perspective

Image Jon O’Connor (c) 2022 all rights reserved

Long before The Wall That Heals (TWTH) entered Bedford, on Tuesday, September 20, 2022, schools of thought associated with emotional recovery, or healing, clearly understood the importance of identity, belonging, support, and empowerment. While leaving diagnosis and prescribing treatments to the professionals, let’s briefly review the original, pre-1982, impetus and design criteria of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) who’s responsible for the memorial’s funding, creation, and the engaging mission of The Wall That Heals.

Circa 1980, Congress approved purchase of two acres of land adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial.  As Congress navigated legislation supporting a VVM, members emphasized their emotionally charged intent to create a national symbol of reconciliation. The tumultuous 60s and 70s fraught with more than a decade of questionable war, protests, and assassinations required some measure of reconciliation; reconciliation with honor.

The article continues after the picture ~ Images, Jon O’Connor (c) 2022 all rights reserved

The VVMF’s website specifically lists the chief design criteria of the memorial be: 1) reflective and contemplative in character; 2) be harmonious with its site and environment, 3) make no political statement about the war itself, and 4) contain the names of all who died or remained missing.

Studies indicate that memorials like the VVM, and by extension TWTH, can facilitate the grieving process. Yet, they recognize that individuals personally grieve, process, and heal at very different levels.

On November 13, 1982, the highly introspective effort to create an apolitical, contemplative architecture structure, of harmoniously simplistic design, collided with essential human needs of identity, belonging, support, and empowerment……. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was respectfully dedicated to honor the warrior not the war, and to begin open dialogue, create closure, and begin healing some very deep wounds.

How did we get here?

Rolling Thunder’s explosive roars of motorcycle exhaust on Tuesday, September 20th was preceded by VA, State, and local police departments in the long, not-so-quiet escort procession. Not to be outdone in number or decibels, the American Legion Riders from many local Posts, including American Legion Post 221, Bedford, contributed to the more than 250 patriotic individuals who escorted TWTH’s truck and educational mobile unit to VA property. Bedford’s Fire Department provided a beautiful welcoming exclamation mark for the escort to ride under by unfurling a giant US Flag, a symbol of freedom and liberty, from an extended ladder on high.

Yet not all the “getting here” was accomplished by wheels and axles over paved surfaces with escorts. There are detailed lists, of detailed tasks, with detailed dates, timetables, organization, and so much more to create an event like this; making it appear seamless to the public.

VA Bedford Healthcare System’s Medical Director-CEO, Joan Clifford spoke with appreciation at one of the ceremonies, “there are so many who made this week unforgettable, VA Patients, Veterans, Volunteers, Staff – we thank them all – and thanks to Laurel, it’s because of her that we actually have this wall, it took an awful lot of coordination and persistence to get it here”.

When the huge tractor-trailer rig finally came to a stop, Vic Muschler, Site Manager for Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), spoke to the nearly 300 volunteers present. With the vocals of a Drill Sergeant, Vic delivered an extremely powerful message of Welcome Home to Veterans of the Vietnam War, and Vietnam Era Veterans, along with most sincere appreciation to the escort team. He also announced that “we are here to undo some of the wrongs of the 60s and 70s during the Vietnam Era when we didn’t welcome home or treat our Veterans very well, so we want to start changing some of the past, so Welcome Home and we hope that this escort will be part of that healing process”.

Click this link to read about the procession bringing the Wall to Bedford

How is it possible for a Wall to Heal???

Kevin Doherty, a VA Specialist and Global War On Terror (GWOT) Veteran himself, started a supportive conversation with a solemn crowd gathered on Sunday morning’s Blessing of the Families Ceremony.  Knowing that others understand, identify, and support similar emotional challenges in their lives furthers the healing process along. Kevin sympathetically expressed: “……. we take time to recognize and honor the families and friends who were also significantly impacted by the injuries, trauma, and casualties of the Vietnam War – it is most fitting that we acknowledge the sacrifice forced on families and friends by this war”.

The article continues after the picture ~ Images, Jon O’Connor (c) 2022 all rights reserved

 

Those present were able to share their personal experiences, tell their stories, and communicate their gratitude as to how this wall helped with their personal healing.  An unidentified woman at the Gold Star Mother’s Day Ceremony spoke from her heart to all in attendance: “As a member of the Gold Star community, I want to thank those of you here who have a true understanding, or the personal experience to know what sacrifice is to the fullest extent. I thank you because right here in front, you see that I am blessed with a beautiful family of my own. These are my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I will be eternally grateful to all of you, and all of the 50,000 plus people whose names are on that wall. This right, or privilege, for someone like me to have a life, and to have a family because of other people’s sacrifice can’t be stressed or appreciated enough”.

There are 140 panels on TWTH, each with the names of our 58,318 lost or missing from the Vietnam War. A continuous impassioned display of over 400,000 items has been left at the foot of the wall since beginning its tour. Flowers, pictures, cards, and letters, along with mementos of every shape and size help remember those whose names are etched on the wall. Tremendous therapeutic healing accompanies the gift of remembering them with love and honor.

Bob Bronson, a Gold Star Brother explained how the wall helps him heal this way: “……this wall, The Wall That Heals, is one of the best ways I can fulfill my promise to my brother. That promise is to keep his memories alive and honor his life.

This is the first traveling replica of one of our most revered memorials. Traveling from small towns to large cities across our country affording an opportunity for those who might never have a chance: to see, touch, or feel the message of this memorial. I’ve spoken with many Veterans of the Vietnam War, World War II, Iraq, and Afghanistan – though the names may not [really] be there, their personal experiences along with the faces of their fallen comrades are etched with love, honor, and respect for the fallen they served with and lost”.

What is a Healing Wall and what does it mean to you?

Thoughtful solitude ~ Image, Jon O’Connor (c) 2022 all rights reserved

The theme to honor the warrior, not the war continues to be strong motivation, especially with Vietnam Combat Veterans.  Paul Lewis, a USMC Vietnam Combat Veteran, and part of the American Legion Rider escort, said “we’re here representing our brothers and sisters that fought in the Vietnam War, this is how we honor all those that didn’t make it home, including three members of my squad”.

Veterans Service Officer (VSO) for Bedford, MA, Bill Linnehan, was asked to comment on his experiences this week. He responded: “There were two moving memories, from a personal perspective, first, my boyhood friend who became a chopper pilot in Vietnam; his name is on that wall. Then there’s the pilot of an A-4 Skyhawk from a carrier I served on. A couple days before flying his first combat mission, he openly contemplated what it might be like getting shot down. He never made a second flight, never made it back to the ship, his name is also on the wall”.

Global War On Terror (GWOT) USMC Combat Veteran, Joe Leaston, described what TWTH means to him.  “We honor those who came before us, helping to shape our lives, this helps guide or pave the way for me to live my life with honor and to respect their sacrifices. Hopefully those who went before us look down on us to see we are living a life worthy of their sacrifices”.

Joe, also a member of the American Legion Riders (ALR) escort team was asked about the ALR’s role relating to escorting the wall as Veterans he replied: “Organizations like The American Legion Riders give the public a peek of understanding how it feels to those who served our country – we comfort and appreciate others who served, it isn’t easy to describe our camaraderie. For example, when we open our homes and open our hearts wide to other Vets, the public catches a glimpse of why we are the way we are. When seeing our “brotherhood” or “Esprit d’Corps” in action, it may seem curious how both intense pain and joyful celebration combine, we always show respect and honor, that runs deep”.

After more than 50 years, is it too late for healing?

Bill Linnehan was asked if, after 50 years, it’s too late for healing.  Without hesitation, he said: “No, not at all! For instance, at the orientation meeting Wednesday, volunteer staff members were briefed on something that really touched me.  We, as Vietnam Veterans, don’t need to continue hearing “thank you for your service”, but rather “Welcome Home”, that’s what we need to hear, I know how much of a difference it made to me personally”.

As a member of the Gold Star Community, Bob Bronson spoke to attendees on Sunday.  he shared: “My brother Billy never got a chance for us to welcome him home. Billy was a living, breathing, loving person who was asked to do an impossible job. He, like thousands of others, never got to hear a Thank You or Welcome Home from what seemed to be at the time, a very ungrateful nation.

We have already lost more than half of our Vietnam Veterans who also never heard the words Thank You, Thank You for Your Service, Thank you for Your Sacrifices, or even Welcome Home”.

The very first words heard on Tuesday morning by Veterans of the Vietnam War, and Vietnam Era Veterans came from VVMF’s Site Manager Vic Muschler – Welcome Home!  The Department of Defense estimates there were at least 2,700,000 who served in the Vietnam War and another 3,000,000 who are Vietnam Era Veterans. Meaning Vietnam Era Veterans were in the Armed Forces anytime during 1955 through 1975 – however they never were “in country” or deployed in Vietnam.  We have already established that nearly half of those men and women have passed away. Therefore, there are certainly more than 2,000,000 Vietnam Veterans and Vietnam Era Veterans who we can Welcome Home.

Closing Ceremonies and Breaking Down the Panels of The Wall that Heals!

At the Gold Star Mother’s Day Ceremony, Doctor Joan Clifford, VA Bedford Healthcare System’s Medical Director-CEO, proclaimed with appreciation and encouragement on Sunday, “Thank you for joining us, how fitting it is that closing The Wall That Heals today coincides with Gold Star Mother’s Day.  “….. we always hope for more, yet we have already seen a lot of healing begin during the past week”.

Image, Jon O’Connor (c) 2022 all rights reserved

Awareness tours for over 500 school-age children left life-long notions of how to value honor.  “Echoes from the Wall” an educational program opened new dialogues. An interactive “name rubbing” exercise was followed up with an assignment to learn more about that pencil shadowed impression. A new understanding of how that name represented the ultimate sacrifice of real service men and women, created permanent connections to history.

Whether accompanied by one of more than 150 Wall Escort volunteers safeguarding the wall 24/7 or reflecting in solitude under a moonlit haze in the wee hours, hardly a single visitor, staff member, or volunteer walked away without being emotionally impacted by their encounter with history. The nearly week-long, reflection-generating event, embraced over 2,000 visitors. The greater Bedford area has been blessed with this experience.

Putting up or taking down the 140 panels is no easy task. A tremendous shout out to personnel from Hanscom Air Force Base and the many volunteers for their assistance – Thank You CMSgt Bobby Jacques.

“All Gave Some, Some Gave All”

A decade after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated, Billy Ray Cyrus released a song (1992) that eventually rose to #1 status in 2001. The lyrics in “All Gave Some” struck consoling cords in the public’s collective heart during the early years of the GWOT. Those words are equally appropriate for Veterans, families, and friends who answered Uncle Sam’s call from 1955 – 1975.

Kevin Doherty, from our VA, sang deeply from his soul while delivering that song on Sunday; the day they took down the wall. Here are a few verses – listen in the privacy, safety, and comfort of your own home someday.

For all his friends who gave us all
Who stood their ground and took the fall
To help their fellow man
Love your country and live with pride
And don’t forget those who died
America can’t you see?

All Gave Some, Some Gave All
Some stood through for the red, white and blue
And some had to fall
And if you ever think of me
Think of all your liberties and recall
Some Gave All

 Taking down, or tearing down the walls…..  walls of silence, torment, anguish, confusion, and fear. Confronting tragedies, inconsistencies, and inadequacies of the past with the integral component to “Honor the Warrior Not the War” begins to address how TWTH remarkably does promote a healing process.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, (and by extension, The Wall That Heals) was respectfully dedicated to Honor the Warrior Not the War”, to begin an open dialogue, to begin to create closure, and to begin healing some very deep wounds.

If ever you think of the names on the wall
Think of your freedoms, liberties, and recall
Some Gave All

 

Image, Jon O’Connor (c) 2022 all rights reserved


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Paul Purchia
2 months ago

Thank you OC for your thoughtful and comprehensive coverage of this special four day event. And a very special thanks to Laurel Holland of the Bedford VA whose drive and persistence made The Wall That Heals visit to Bedford a reality. Thank you to all the volunteers, and attendees young and old, who found the time to come and to learn, to remember and to grieve.
Welcome Home.

Julia Whiteneck
Julia Whiteneck
2 months ago

Thank you, O.C. for the full story of this important memorial. In the 1970’s my best friend and I got bracelets engraved with the name of a missing soldier. This week I took a pencil rubbing of the name James May, Jr. at the VA. I didn’t know the man personally but his fate has been in my thoughts for 50 years. I was grateful to be able to visit the traveling memorial and continue to honor the sacrifices made by our troops doing their duty in Vietnam.

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