Beilue: For Vietnam War veterans, the wall can be a hard, but healing day

They come — buses of students from Boys Ranch and Hart and other schools, the curious, the patriotic, history buffs, friends and kin of one of those thousands of names along the replica of the wall. They all have their reasons.

 

But none come quite like the Vietnam War veteran, men now in their mid- and upper-60s, men like Neil Purcell.

“It’s kinda hard to describe,” Purcell said, “to come out here and see these names. To put faces with names really hurts. But what hurts is names you never knew.”

Purcell doesn’t seem to notice the 25-degree cold of a mid-Thursday morning. He stands silently alone a few feet away from the Wall That Heals, and slowly makes his way to another section and then another. He was 21, a Navy Seabee when he was in I Corps, the most northern part of South Vietnam during 1969 and 1970.

“It’s pretty tough,” he said. “It’s something you live with the rest of your life and not get over it. They say PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) goes away with time, but it doesn’t.”

The Wall That Heals, under the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, is a half-sized replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The wall in Washington is 10 feet at its apex and 493 feet long that carries 58,318 names of those who died in the Vietnam War, which officially was from 1965-1973.

“It can be life-changing,” said Patrick O’Neill, site manager of the traveling wall for the last three years. “I’ve had family tell me their dad or husband is now talking and laughing for the first time. It’s like a traveling novel for me. There’s always something new.”

Amarillo College and Panhandle PBS, along with numerous community partners and volunteers, were able to secure the Wall That Heals for its 38th and final stop in 25 states for 2017. The wall is half the size with a 5-foot apex and is 225 feet long. The exhibit, along with a mobile education center, is at John Stiff Park at Bell Street and SW 48th Avenue through Sunday. It has made nearly 500 stops since 1996.

It is the culmination of a semester of examining the controversial war for AC and Panhandle PBS. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s seminal 10-part documentary on the war aired on KACV in September. The Common Reader this year for AC students is “The Things They Carried,” a collection of short stories on a platoon of soldiers on the ground in Vietnam. There is an exhibit at the Amarillo Museum of Art that speaks to the war.

“This project is all about our Vietnam veterans and a way to honor them,” said Cullen Lutz, community engagement coordinator for Panhandle PBS. “Not everyone can go to Washington to see the Memorial. We want this replica to be viewed by everyone, but we especially want it to be a healing experience for those who need to be healed.”

And on this Thursday, as she is most any day where the traveling wall sits, is “Little Sis.” She sits bundled up against the cold, and at a distance from the wall, enough room to give the veterans their space.

Monica Harvey, her given name, is a bit of a veteran’s whisperer. She’s not looking for the macho loud veteran, but the one who might be struggling.

“I look for a lip that’s quivering, or someone wiping their glasses,” she said.

And then she invites them to sit down. She has given out more than 100,000 pins, the ones with a band-aid over a heart and attached to a card that says, “Welcome Home, Big Brother From Little Sis.” She will hand out writing pens, and a keychain that says, “Welcome Home.”

But Harvey has been doing this since 2004, at 125 stops for the wall in 30 states. She’s not a gift shop, but a counselor and a listening ear.

“Men will apologize for crying with me,” she said, “and I tell them for every tear you let out you stand taller, and for every tear I cry, I get thinner. So let’s keep it up.”

She’s gone from her Nebraska home each year between six and 14 times following the wall — and sits and waits. And she will invite the man consumed by guilt for the name on the wall who took his place that day, the platoon leader whose men died, but he didn’t, the medic who couldn’t save the wounded.

“Everybody has their own story of what they saw and did and who they lost,” she said. “For some who come to the wall, it’s one of the hardest days of their life.”

She sits with as many as 20 a day, talking about renewed purpose, giving them a “welcome home” they never got from such a poisoned time in our country’s history. She will pick up on some things they say, and try, in however minutes they have, to give them some hope.

Hopefully, for those who need it, this replica is the Wall that Heals. For others, it should be a reminder of brave and noble men, braver and more noble than the government who sent them to war.

Those 58,318 names, they were America’s best. And they were ours.

Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at jon.beilue@amarillo.com or 806-345-3318. Twitter: @jonmarkbeilue.

How to go

What: The Wall That Heals, a half-sized replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Where: John S. Stiff Park, Southwest 48th Avenue and South Bell Street.

When: Open 24 hours a day with closing ceremonies beginning 1 p.m. Sunday.

How much: Free

Information: actx.edu

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