This Nov. 13 is the "30th Anniversary" of the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial. We followed veterans from New Orleans and Louisiana for this moving ceremony 30 years ago, and photographer Brian Lukas provides an account of the trip below.
Brian Lukas / Eyewitness News
“History is about people, and there is nothing more interesting to people than other people” - Stephen Ambrose
Thousands of people are arriving here in our nation's capital this November 13, 1982. History will be made in Washington, D.C. I arrived in Washington at 9:53 p.m. on a Thursday with Ron Gardner, Glenn Taylor and Bill Ryan, all from the New Orleans area. They are part of a group of Vietnam veterans gathering in Washington, D.C. for a long delayed welcome home.
The planned ceremonies are a belated national embrace initiated and promoted by the veterans themselves. They fought and died in an unpopular conflict, for uncertain ends and prolonged far beyond the hope of success.
When many of these Vietnam veterans came home, they came home sometimes to hostile insults from their own country.
The war had sharply divided the nation. But almost 10 years after the end of the Vietnam War, there is a deep meaning for this gathering of veterans and a greater meaning to the country.
The pilgrimage is tasked to bind a generation who suffered through a tragic war and to remember those who were killed. But these veterans also want to rekindle the convenient - almost amnesiac - memory of a nation trying to forget Vietnam.
But the memory and images of the day-to-day survival hasn’t diminished the youthful, but furrowed faces and tempered eyes of the “long stare” survivors of the War. They came to remember those who did not. They gather here in vast numbers. New Orleanians and veterans from around the country like Ron, Glenn and Bill arrive to honor those whose names are etched on the stark black granite panels of the Vietnam Memorial.
Exiting the concourse of Washington National Airport, there is an immediate sense of irony and outspoken pride when, by chance, the first person to unofficially greet the New Orleans delegation is Vietnamese - our taxi driver. With a broad smile and humble reverence he bowed in respect, then shook the hand of each veteran. He thanked them for their service. We all somehow managed to squeeze into his cab and left for our hotel. It is late and the weather is turning cold. Tomorrow will be a long day, a day of national celebration.
Reveille came much too early the next morning. It is just after daybreak. The sun is trying to tear through the clouds. The strong morning wind signals the beginning of a chilly autumn day. On the Mall, American flags circling the monolithic Washington Monument are snapping to a cadence whipped up from the brisk northerly breeze. The sounds sharpened with sensory precision through the ear. It contrasts ever so differently with the slow, almost muffled foot traffic of the Vietnam veterans and their families walking down the concrete path near Constitution Avenue.
Ron Gardner, Glenn Taylor and Bill Ryan are part of the cadre of early risers trying to the get a glimpse of the Vietnam Memorial before the official ceremony begins. They will meet up with other units of veterans from New Orleans and Louisiana. All are veterans sharing the horrific images of the not-too-distant past but drawn together in a common interest: the formal dedication of the Vietnam Memorial.
Initially it is difficult for those arriving early to even see the monument. In the twilight of morning, the monument is dark and seemingly sunken into the earth. It is quite an emotional contrast to the massive buildings and other impressive monuments along the great vista of the Mall. Approaching the dark, triangular edge of the Vietnam Memorial, Ron, Glenn and Bill’s hurried pace slowed to a moderate, if not more hesitant, measured manner. The three veterans slowly walk down the concrete path to the rising apex of the monument. The “long stare” from the eyes of Ron, Glenn and Bill’s solemn glance revealed their reverence for the names etched on the black granite monument.
“So many names”, Glenn Taylor remarked as he, Ron Gardner and Bill Ryan began scanning the monument. Their eyes told the story -- their story. All three stood and focused on the many names “up there” on “the Wall”.
Their eyes filled with emotion. All are trying their best to hold back the tears, but it was OK to cry here. Others already have. Somehow this monument invited all here to make it their own.
They propped roses beside it, placed personal notes atop candles, set photographs of dead sons and brothers on it, bedecked it with wreaths, touched it constantly and washed it with tears.
For quite sometime Ron Gardner silently stood in front of the Vietnam Memorial. He positioned his hand near his face scanning the black panels aligned with the names of those killed in “NAM" -- those he knew, those he tried to survive with. Like every war this war was about names, each name a special human being who never came home.
After a long pause Ron Gardner quietly remarked, "I think about the pain on that wall, you know, the screams, and I think about the love that everybody over there exhibited toward each other. That I haven’t seen since before going to Vietnam, and, I haven’t seen since.”
The eyes of Glenn Taylor slowly searched the black granite panels. Other veterans and their family’s came early also. The tone of the increasing gathering crowd is a noticeable quiet respect. Very few of the early gatherers are talking. Reverent silence prevails. All here, including Glenn, scan the more than 58,000 inscribed names. Glenn’s eyes continuously moves from name to name. An emotional redness flows from the rim of his eyes. Near Glenn there is a woman is wiping away her tears with the help of the trembling hands of her husband.
At the bottom of a panel they found name of their son. Glenn Taylor nodded to the couple and remarked, “There’s a little bit of all of us on the wall, but the story I think is in the faces of the people you see here. They are not here by accident. The kids that you see slowly walking by, their dads are up there that they never saw. You see the numbers, over 58,000, there’s a lot of people, and when you see it up on the Wall, you can’t help but wonder what society could have done with these guys.”
After long pause of reflecting on what almost resembles the random placement of names on the monument Bill Ryan whispered aloud, “It created a little confusion, but I think that’s what the Vietnam War was all about. Trying to locate the names of the people you know that died, and the initial confusion of it, brought back memories of every-day survival in Vietnam. But, I think the Monument will grow and it will create a contemplation of what went on in the Vietnam War.”
Bill Ryan received the Naval Commendation for Heroism and the Silver Star for his service in Vietnam. A Marine Corps officer, his company was overrun at a mountain position. He speaks to the emotional affects of war because he has seen so much of it. Standing in front of the Memorial and holding back a tear, Bill Ryan says, “The Memorial will give the American people a chance to reflect, and hopefully never allow this tragedy to happen again. It was a tragedy.”
We meet other people from New Orleans who made the pilgrimage. All are searching for names of friends and relatives who died in the war. One is former Marine Corps First Sergeant Charles Beeson. Charles Beeson lost his younger brother Morris in Vietnam. The two brothers met there in 1969. It was the last they were to see of each other. Charles Beeson accompanied his brother’s body, Morris Beeson, home to New Orleans after he was killed in an ambush.
On the Memorial, Charles eventually locates his brother name on the granite scroll. He is saddened but quickly moves to show his name of his brother the other veterans gathering. Then, he extends further to the top panel to show all that pass his way. His hand slowly caresses the etching of his brother name. A wide smile begins to emanate from Charles. Touching the name of his brother somehow binds them once again.
”It make me fell proud to see his name," said Marine Corps First Sergeant Charles Beeson. "At least somebody thought of him."
As one looks at the Vietnam Monument for the first time, you are struck by its simplicity of design. The Monument seems to be apparition - two large, triangular wedges of black granite rising from the earth. But unlike the other Monuments this Memorial has an accounting of the over 58,000 names who died in the Vietnam War. In a sense the Memorial is an invoice to the nation - this is what it cost to have this war. These veterans gave no less than those Americans who died on Tarawa, Normandy or in the Ardennes.
Each name represents a family member to the thousands arriving for the dedication.
Later in the morning, our path, like the path of thousands of others, leads to the Gothic confines of the National Cathedral. Volunteers are reading the more than 58,000 names of the Vietnam War dead. For 56 hours they sounded the names that reached deep into the soul of America. Near the back of the Cathedral Bill Ryan, Glenn Taylor and Bob Gardner sit. They listen to the echoes of the names reverberating off the Cathedral walls. Family members and veterans are continuously flowing through the Cathedral. Without hesitation the readers methodically pronounced the names of those killed. A volunteer reader paused before reciting the next name on the scroll of the dead, the name she was about to read was that of her husband.
For almost two hours I listened to those names ringing through the National Cathedral. Everyone one here had a story and a family member whose name is memorialized on the “Wall.” Every face told a silent narrative of their loved one. Their eyes filled with tears. There is common grief of all those in the Cathedral. Family’s hold hands and embrace.
Being here helped bring some type of healing to all who came to sit and listen as their loved one’s names was sounded. In the evening, and for the moment, the pain of the Vietnam War is behind Ron Gardner, Glenn Taylor and Bill Ryan. They join those from around New Orleans and Louisiana to march as a unit, among the thousands of Vietnam veterans from across the country about to march down Constitution Avenue. Veterans representing the 50 states and their families form a sea of humanity along the Mall. It is a happy occasion. The start of a parade and reception these Vietnam veterans were denied when the war ended 10 years ago.
Near the staging area of the parade there is an elderly gentleman shaking hands with every Vietnam veteran he passed. It is the Vietnam commanding General William Westmorland. With a broad smile and a firm handshake, he asks the Louisiana veterans, “How are you?” and thanked them for their service. Many Vietnam veterans never met General Westmorland “in country,” but the general walked among the groups staging for the parade continuously shaking the hands of his troops. He came to honor their service. It meant a lot to these Louisiana veterans.
Eventually the parade began to move down Constitution Avenue. The parade means different things to different people. For one veteran, former Marine Corps Colonel Andrew Anderson of New Orleans, it is a personally triumph for those who returned from overseas and a tribute to those who names are on the Vietnam Memorial. Colonel Anderson remembers two close friends who never made it back. One is a Corky Ram and the other is Tom Kennedy.
“Corky and Tom will be besides me every step of the way.” Colonel Anderson tells other veterans mustered besides him. “We'll be talking about life and about the Marine Corp, and, how important this day is in the history of all America.”
Even though it is a cloudy day, if one dares to stare long enough and intensely enough, there appears to be shadows like Corky Ram and Tom Kennedy marching along the side of each Vietnam Veteran.
Perry Tillman, from New Orleans, leads the Louisiana contingent. Perry Tillman's life changed forever when his helicopter was shot down over Vietnam. The horrific crash broke his back and left him a paraplegic. Perry is in a wheelchair.
There are too many Vietnam veterans in wheelchairs and too many Vietnam veterans walking with canes and crutches. Many wounds are visible, unfortunately, many wounds are only visible in the images kept deep within their minds. But this is a healing day for the nation and for these veterans. With a broad smile Perry Tillman leads the Louisiana contingent down Constitution Avenue. Ron Gardner, Glenn Taylor and Bill Ryan following him waving American flags. They pass by the thousands of Americans lining the parade route. As they walked further along Constitution Avenue, the crowds grew larger - the cheering increased with intensity - the smiles broadened and the hands never stopped clapping for these Vietnam veterans. Marine Corps Colonel Anderson remarked, “American is putting her arms out and saying thank you, thank you for what you did welcome home. You did a damn fine job.”
In the evening the formal dedication of the Vietnam Memorial is attended by a sea of thousands overflowing the Washington Mall. Vietnam veterans and their families crowd together in front of the Monument. Some vets even climb nearby trees to get an unobstructed view. As the day of ceremony’s ended, very few wanted to leave. Harold Doss Senior of Terrytown, a veteran of WWII who lost a son in Vietnam, is here as a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He came to remember his son and to officially welcome the Vietnam veterans to the same honors given to others who have fought for their country.
"I hope the boys here today pull together and get with the main stream of America. Because that’s where they belong," Mr. Doss said, "they should be honored as any other veteran out here today.
On November 13,1982 the nation finally gave the Vietnam veterans the welcome they deserved. Reluctantly leaving the ceremony site, a Vietnam veteran remarked, “All these people on the Wall are my friends. I wish the country could have done something a long time ago. We didn’t need a parade. All we needed was a little respect. I hope the American people remember us.”
The Vietnam Memorial became part of America’s conscience. From its dedication to present day, the Vietnam Memorial continues to be one of the most visited sites in Washington.