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The Same Season: A Visit to the Vietnam War Memorial

May 11, 2015

Wall 9

I’ve been here before…before the women were here. There it is: the wall, nestled against the hill as a line of tourists – folks from Ohio and Wisconsin, schoolteachers from Tennessee, a school band from Peoria – file past. As I sit on a park bench in the warm April sunshine, their voices carry on the breeze. The jets from National Airport laze over the horizon and the apple blossoms are out. Then I remember: eleven years ago, on my first visit, it was the same season.

I’m definitely older – and tireder – this time. I just walked seven blocks from the Metro station and my feet hurt. I gaze at the three women. My God, they’re so young…just as we were…Judy…Nancy…Kay…Georgeanne. I have to struggle a bit to remember some of the names.

The fatigues look right. There are pens in the shoulder and the hat brims are coiled: from constant fiddling – and the heat. The tourist voices vanish and I hear the “whap, whap, whap” of a helicopter and feel the stinging dust on my face as it lands. Once we were airborne, for a moment, we were cool. Looking down, we could see the path of the Mekong, twisted and glinting in the sun. The green was so lush and thick; how could a place this beautiful require the undivided attention of the fresh-faced gunner poised in the doorway? I look back at the nurses.

As I sit watching them, I suddenly realize why I am so uncomfortable.  The sculptor has caught these women in a terribly unguarded moment…a moment when they’re not wisecracking or griping …or simply going doggedly on with “work”, that crushing, tedious rock that never seemed to roll off their backs.

Those gazes are looking back at me. I can see the fatigue, the resignation, the looming despair. It makes these women seem naked and I am embarrassed for them. We hardly ever let that show.

“Excuse me, ma’am…may I ask what you’re writing?” It’s a kid, about 16, tall and thin-faced with an earnest look. His t-shirt says “Teaneck High School”. I explain who I am and what I’m writing. As we talk, other t-shirts appear and I’m surrounded by a small clump of teenagers who want to know something about Vietnam. They are quiet;respectful.  They ask good questions. I feel a little better.

As the t-shirts wave good-bye and walk down the red brick path, I am left alone with the nurses again. I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t watch men die; only mourned them afterwards over a beer at the Officer’s Club. But what is in their eyes…I have felt it. I am stunned as I gently reach out and place my hand on the slumped figure’s head and my eyes fill with tears. Why am I doing this? The answer comes quietly.

Because they are my sisters…and I remember.

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