Late on a very cold but clear evening in November 1992 in Washington, DC, I mounted the special dais and was humbled, and honoured, to read the names of the 37 New Zealanders who had lost their lives in Vietnam. Their names drifted in the cold still air and settled lightly on the Vietnam Memorial – The Wall – mingling with the 58,272 US Vietnam Veterans who had lost their lives...
There's a wall in Washington
and it's made of cold black granite
They say 60,000 names are etched there in it
in that wall in WashingtonThere’s a Wall in Washington by Iris Dement
I had come to Washington, DC, as a soldier, some years before US Vietnam Veteran Jan Scruggs, a Corporal who served with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade from 1969-1970, began lobbying for a memorial to acknowledge and recognise the service and sacrifice of his countrymen who served in Vietnam. I had already been living there for six-years when Scruggs lobbied Congress for a site, initiated a national fund raising campaign, and announced the memorial's design would be selected through a national design competition.
Having left the Army and resettled in Washington as a civilian, my soldier life was all but forgotten. I did, however, take an interest in the planning and construction of The Wall, not that one could see much during construction because the actual wall is sunk below ground level.
The Wall's dedication
Then in November 1982, with the build completed, thousands of Vietnam War veterans descended on Washington and marched to the site on the 13th of November for the memorial dedication. On that day, I too, watched the dedication ceremony standing on top of the slope that angled down to the apex where the two arms of the wall meet. Leaving my office near the White House, as I had done in the days leading up to the dedication, I enjoyed mingling with the US veterans. They were an odd lot, dressed in their old fatigues and jungle hats, most now with long hair – a fusion of war protester and veteran warrior. But, they had come to Washington so the nation could acknowledge their service and the sacrifice. To, finally, come home. I believe there were a lot of veterans who had been lost until that time and The Wall allowed them to move on. Such was the impact of The Wall and the occasion.
In 1984, the statue of the Three Soldiers was dedicated and added to The Wall complex. In the beginning there had been some very negative reaction to the winning design and this statue was commissioned as a compromise. The statue stands away from and doesn't impact on The Wall. To me, they are two different memorials. The Wall is powerful and touches you. The statue is interesting but fails to capture the power and feeling of the main memorial. It is part of the memorial complex at Constitution Gardens that includes the Vietnam Women's memorial.
Not only to the veterans, but, to all who visit it The Wall has a profound effect. I would visit ‘The Wall' periodically on my own and with visitors. Living just behind the Capitol Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, meant the Mall was my backyard. Often when out for a run, or bike ride, I would take some time out and sit on the grass slope and look at ‘The Wall' it was then I would think about my year in Vietnam and the people I served with. It was very much a place I could go to reflect.
In 1992 Alan Nixey, EVSA Secretary, contacted me to ask if I would represent the EVSA at the 10th anniversary celebrations for The Wall. Delighted at being asked, I made myself available, coordinating my involvement with the Army attaché at the NZ Embassy. There was not much we could be involved in, but along with the attaché we supplied flags and took our turns reading the names of the dead, a week long non-stop reading of the 58,272. At the beginning of the week of the celebrations a rugby referee friend from rural Virginia, Ed Browder - a former US Marine Captain and Vietnam veteran, arrived to stay and made himself available to help wherever possible with the organising committee. It was good having Ed for the week. Away from the clutches of rugby we took the time to talk about Vietnam – the first time I had done so in years – while we steadily worked our way through the 12 bottles of Chardonnay Ed had brought. It was on one of these evenings I was given the opportunity to recite the names of our 37 dead.
A year later I was, again, approached by Alan Nixey with a request to give whatever help I could to Pamela Miley-Terry who was coming to Washington to attend the Vietnam Women's memorial project dedication. We contacted Pam and invited her to stay for the week. Prior to Pam arriving I attended a reception at the Australian Embassy for the group of Australian nurses who had arrived for the dedication. Also at the reception was Diane Carlson Evans whose drive brought his new memorial to fruition. Diane was a very charming, down to earth lady and I spent some pleasant minutes chatting with her.
Pam had plenty to do during the week, catching up with Australian girls and attending a mental health symposium among other events. We met with the Military attaché in order to get some support (mainly a flag for Pam to carry in the dedication parade).At last the day, Thursday, 11th November 1993, for the dedication arrived. Pam's position was at the tail end of the parade and she was quite a lonely sight carrying her flag – but she got a huge amount of support from the crowds that had come to watch the parade and the dedication. I scooted back and forth along the parade and took some photos to record the occasion for Pam. US Vice-President, Al Gore, was in attendance with many other dignitaries. Afterwards, Fran and I joined Pam and the Aussie girls for a few drinks at a bar. It was a raucous afternoon. That evening there was a celebration dance.
Often some specific reason would take me to The Wall. My rugby referee ex-Marine Ed Browder, an assistant principal at a Junior High School in Louisa, Virginia, would sometimes bring a class through to Washington to visit The Wall. On those occasions Ed would call and ask if I would meet them at The Wall to give the students a talk about New Zealand's involvement in the Vietnam War.
I have been lucky in that I lived in Washington and was witness to The Wall from the inception of the project through to its dedication. I have been honoured to have actively involved in the dedication of the Vietnam Women's memorial and the 10th Anniversary celebrations of the dedication of The Wall. I may be the only New Zealand Vietnam veteran to have done so.