A visit to the Traveling Tribute.
We'd like to thank Linda Freedman for this outstanding piece on her visit to the Traveling Viet Nam Veterans Memorial.
June 20, 2006
"Viet Nam" is more than just a powerful phrase. It is a time, a place, a controversial period in history and for many - still a painful memory.
My generation was the first to have the daily news broadcast into our homes. I was unprepared for the sight of people who lined up to spit on the soldiers returning from Viet Nam instead of lining up to welcome them home. We had not yet learned how to separate the soldier from the war.
In 1982, the Viet Nam veterans finally received the gratitude and honor they deserved. Maya Ying Lin, a native-born undergraduate at Yale University in my home state of Connecticut designed the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. Finally, we had a chance to begin the healing process. For those who cannot travel to see it, there is The American Veterans Traveling Tribute - a 4/5th size replica of the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial and veterans' art exhibit.
Although April in Connecticut is usually cool and often rainy, when I learned that the exhibit was coming to my state, I had to go and see it. In addition to being the largest replica of its type in the nation, the exhibit also includes Vietnam Remembered. This is a collection of over 90 paintings on canvas by Norm Bergsma, who along with his wife Kathy, bring this exhibit across the country.
The weather on that Sunday was unseasonably sunny and warm. The sky was cloudless and a brilliant light blue, the young grass was a soft green carpet underfoot. Walking across the Windsor town green, signs were posted along the entry path proclaiming this place to be hallowed ground. But I felt it even before I saw them"¦
I entered the exhibit and received a program. Once inside, I looked down the length of the wall from the middle and then looked down the length of it in the opposite direction. Huge dark block after dark block reflected a shadow image of visitors standing before them. So many names"¦ And although I didn't know any of the names on the wall, I felt compelled to touch them just the same. As letters slid beneath my fingertips, I was no longer aware of those around me who were doing the same thing. With my fingers still touching the smooth surface, I looked to my left and my right and saw a bridge of arms at various heights and of various lengths - the out-stretched arms of men, women and children - all drawing comfort by touching the engraved names of loved ones on the sun-warmed blocks. Some visitors were making pencil rubbings of the names. I continued to read the names for a few minutes more and then focused on my own reflection, visible only in the smooth space between the names. At the base lay the remnants of candles burned down to their holders, leftovers from candlelight ceremonies on the previous nights of the exhibit. Flowers, letters, teddy bears and old photos had been placed among them. And many types of flags.
I stepped back to give other visitors a chance at my place on the wall. I opened the program I received upon entering. Under the heading "Welcome Home" were these words:
"The purpose of the "Traveling Tribute" is not to glorify wars fought, but to pay homage to those who served their country. To those who gave the ultimate sacrifice - their life - the Tribute insures that their memory shall never fade. To the former POWs of all wars who endured unimaginable hardships and pain in the name of democracy, the Tribute honors their service to our country. To our Prisoners Of War & Missing In Action who were left behind, the Tribute is dedicated to their memory. To all who made it back, the Tribute simply says, "Welcome Home and Thank You."
Walking the length of the wall, I overheard people sharing stories of their loved ones. Occasionally, visitors were re-united with people from the past. It was not a sad place, as I had expected. It was a place of understanding, empathy and sympathy. A few groups had obviously traveled far to visit the wall and pay their respects. But of all the visitors I saw that day, there is one who will always stand out in my memory. A Viet Nam veteran slowly approached the wall. After locating the name he was searching for, he gently traced it a few times with his fingers. His fingers slowed, then stopped. After a moment, his hand slid down the wall and came to rest at his side. He bowed his head and a breeze blew his white ponytail across his eyes as if to offer him privacy. Then he knelt down and dropped a photo at the base of the wall. He remained there, motionless, for a few minutes more and then his shoulders began to shake as he wept silently. A few minutes later, he rose and wiping tears from his eyes, disappeared back into the crowd.
This is the power of the Traveling Tribute. As it makes its way across the country, it absorbs tears and pain and transforms them into a delicate closure and a quieting of the troubled mind and aching heart.
I left the wall and walked into the tents which sheltered Vietnam Remembered. These paintings had every bit as much impact as seeing the wall. It is one thing to read about history, it is quite another to see it portrayed vividly on large canvases. You didn't have to experience Viet Nam to feel it here. A picture is truly worth a thousand words when created by Norm Bergsma. Just as I had overheard shared stories at the wall, these images opened hearts as well. Stories of events began to be re-told before each painting. The details were captured so exactly that many times I heard, "I was right there"¦"
At the information table, I met Kathy Bergsma and shared my experience of being a supporter/volunteer with www.adoptaplatoon.org and the good work being done by herobracelets.org. and I showed her the Hero Bracelet I was wearing. She gave me a copy of "Down Range - to Iraq and back", by Bridget C. Cantrell, Ph.D. and Chuck Dean. I urge anyone with deployed family members to get a copy of this book. It will help you to understand and support your returning soldiers.
We often hear people say, "But I'm just one person, what can I do?' The answer is simple. Contact your veterans' associations. They will have many ideas for you.
Here is the easiest and simplest thing to do: when you see a veteran, say, "Thank You".