Dear Reader: Although this article concentrates on the war in Vietnam and the troops that served during that era, I am using those troops as an example because this is the period in which I served (albeit my service was easy during this time, as I have mentioned previously). Please don’t take this column as just thanking Vietnam veterans but all veterans and their relatives and friends: those who gave their lives, those who came home but were injured and those who were lucky enough to return without being injured either physically or mentally.
Following are articles I asked Bill Shugarts, my friend of 58 years, to write so I could share them with you. Bill is a retired corporate executive, who served in the United States Army in 1969 and 1970 with the 23rd Infantry Division-Americal. He was a Battalion Transportation Officer, running re-supply convoys throughout I-Corps in Vietnam. His citations and awards include three bronze stars. Bill’s accomplishments go much further than serving in Vietnam. He currently is a National Park Service Vietnam Wall Volunteer; and a Board Member of No One Left Behind, an organization who helps Afghan and Iraq Interpreters who have saved American soldiers’ lives resettle in the United States, under a special program to avoid being killed by the Taliban. He also volunteers in support of the Fort Belvoir Warrior Transition Battalion via leading a Military Ministry and is a photographer around the National Mall as a published photographer.
The following three articles are some of Bill’s experiences as a docent at the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, DC.
#1: MEETING A VIET CONG SOLDIER AT THE WALL
In April 2011, a gray-haired veteran came up to me at The Wall after recognizing my Americal patch and said he was in the Americal, too. He introduced himself as Frank, and we chatted for several minutes at the center of The Wall. A retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major, Frank was instrumental in training nurses in Vietnam during his tour. In fact, he trained Sharon Lane who is listed on The Wall as one of only eight women killed in Vietnam.
As we were talking, two Vietnamese businessmen approached and asked if I was a soldier. I said yes and introduced Frank as well, indicating that we were both soldiers and served in Vietnam. I asked these Vietnamese men when and where they served in Vietnam with the ARVN-Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. However, I assumed wrongly that these men served with the South Vietnamese Army. They said no, they were Viet Cong, from North Vietnam. I was startled, as I had met two other Vietnamese a week or so earlier who were Viet Cong soldiers as well and came to pay tribute to our war dead and leave a rose. I quickly recovered back into my role as a docent at The Wall and thanked them for coming to our memorial to honor our war dead. One gentleman, Dao Minh Xuyen, wanted his picture taken with us so I obliged.
Dao Minh Xuyen then gave me his business card, which indicated he was president of a Vietnamese Trading Company and was here from Hanoi on business. I told him I had been a businessman trading with Vietnamese companies before retiring. I traveled to North Vietnam and Hanoi as well as to the south to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and various places in between. He wanted to email me and keep in touch.
I thought nothing of it at the time and was just doing my job as a docent. I did send an email to Jan Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund —The Wall that Heals, asking him if they had a “VC convention going on in DC.” Jan laughed and suggested we are comrades now.
Since then, I have been in monthly email contact with Dao Minh Xuyen. We share holiday greetings, pictures of our families and our travels and of the memorials in each of our countries. I have learned about his family, received pictures of his travels throughout Asia, pictures of his daughter’s wedding, and several accounts of him dealing with the aftermath of our war including Agent Orange and related medical issues. He said he was drafted like most of our soldiers were, was “just doing his job,” and really did not understand why they were fighting against the Americans. Like us, he was just trying to survive.
Once again, the healing power of The Wall has enabled two soldiers, one from each side, to become email friends — 42 years ago, we would have literally killed each other. The old adage, “Time heals,” is certainly true here at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
#2: WHAT IS IT ABOUT YOU AMERICANS?
While working one spring day in 2010 as a National Park Service volunteer at The Wall, I had one of the most unusual conversations in the many years I have been volunteering. It all started with a question from a lady and her husband as they approached me in my yellow uniform. They asked me the usual question: “Do you work here?” I told them I am a volunteer with the National Park Service and a Vietnam Veteran and offered to help. Then the lady came closer to me in an uncomfortable way, in my space, asking a quick and accusatory follow-up question. “What is it about you Americans?” The question initially startled me, and I took a step back and asked her for clarification. I said, “What do you mean? In what context?” She then stepped forward, again in my space, and repeated the question even stronger. “What is it about you Americans? You are the only people willing to go anywhere in the world to defend anybody else’s freedom, people you don’t even know…Why is that?” I took a step back again and replied, “Wow, that is a great question that no one has ever asked me before while working here at The Wall.” I went on to say, “I don’t have an official answer, but I will give you my own.” I thought for a moment of what a cynic would say about America’s self-interests across the world, and then told her: “It’s about freedom. In addition to our families, freedom is the most important thing to us Americans and always will be.” I said. “I think it comes from our Founding Fathers and our hope for all people to be free. It also comes from our Christian founders and our faith. Next to our families, freedom is probably the most important thing to us — and certainly, to me.” My answer seemed to satisfy her. She then stepped closer again, only not as abruptly as before, and said: “Well, we just want to say, we sincerely admire you Americans.” I felt about 10 feet tall and thanked her. As I always do when talking with folks at The Wall, I asked where they are from. She said, “We are from Israel.” They walked away with a little more hope from us Americans.
#3: THE HEALING POWER OF THE WALL 42 YEARS LATER
It was an unusually warm, spring-like day, March 1st at The Wall. While working in the mid-morning hours, a gentleman approached and asked if I was a docent. He had a lady friend with him, and they appeared to be close to my age. He was dressed in a Peace Outfit complete with a boonie hat, peace signs, multi-colored peace shirt, and a peace belt bucket to boot. He also had a colorfully decorated artificial arm with a hook on the end of it. He wanted to know if I could take care of his arm, which he wanted to leave. He also wanted to know if it would go into the Vietnam Collection and would be protected. I said: Yes, I could help him; his arm would be protected while on display at The Wall today and become part of the Vietnam Collection at the National Park Service Archives in Maryland.” I was somewhat startled as he took off the prosthesis and laid it at the foot of panel 1-W in line with a small American flag and some paper crosses that had been left at The Wall. He seemed relieved, and his lady friend took a few pictures of him doing this. I asked him politely if he would not mind if I took a couple pictures as well to send to VVMF and the archive folks. He said that would be fine and began telling me his story.
He lost his arm in Vietnam in 1970. His dad and brother had served in the Vietnam War as well. He was quite proud of his family’s service. He had a couple of newspaper article clippings he also wanted to leave and placed them inside his artificial arm. I read these, commented on his family’s service, and placed them back into the artificial arm. He talked a bit about his family, and then said, “I am closing the chapter on Vietnam now and don’t need this anymore,” his eyes misting as he walked away from The Wall. I was trying to hold it together as well and enable him to grieve and heal. I then gave him a VVMF contact card in case he wanted to reach out. He gave me his card, which had the word “Peace” on it and a creative graphic circling the famous peace icon. Interestingly enough, his email address on the card begins with “peaceman.” He shared his name and address as well. He said he and his friend were from Mendocino, California, and never had been to “the real Wall” until now. The healing power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall after 42 years for this man still amazes me.
Thanks so much Bill Shugarts for your insights on how the Vietnam War is still bringing back memories today, how the Vietnam Wall Memorial is helping to sooth these memories and the many activities you participate in to help our veterans.
Jeff Hall, of Honey Brook, contributes columns to Berks-Mont Newspapers. Questions/commentsmay be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org