Our trip to Missoula with TWTH was amazing and a huge success. I had been really hoping it would be since I went out on a limb to make it happen.
Dan Gallagher, with the American Legion Post 101 in Missoula was a wonderful host and such an ally in this project. He really came through in a pinch and is someone I will be forever grateful to. Same goes for the other members of his post, all of those who helped during the visit, the press and the entire community that supported the stop.
Set up on Wednesday was crazy with high winds and it was actually cold. A day out of the ordinary, the locals told me. ROTC students from the University of Montana came out to help and spent the entire day with us, we couldn't have done it with out them. Dan and I agreed it was great to see the future military officers (some are already in the Reserves) chatting with the Vietnam vets. Both groups enjoyed that interaction throughout the week.
I spent a bulk of the day dealing with press, but I was overjoyed at the amount of coverage we got. All of the major networks showed up the first day, as well as public television and radio and the paper. I couldn't have asked for better coverage. The day included my first on camera interview as a comms person. I did alright, but it is a bizarre experience to be on the other side of the questions for sure.
By Thursday, the amazingness was happening. I'll tell you a few of those stories.
One man was a Marine in Vietnam. He had been to the Wall in D.C. and also seen the traveling memorials about a dozen times. But when he walked up to our museum truck, he saw two photos of men he was with when they were killed in Vietnam. He broke down in tears. Dan, who travels with TWTH and runs the merchandise stand with his wife Pattie, saw the man as well and walked over the hug him. Dan is also a Vietnam vet and they didn't have to say anything, they just understood.
Later, I was standing at the Wall, helping someone else find a name location, when the man walked over to me. We got to talking and he told me about why he was crying earlier and then he told me about another friend of his on the Wall. In 1967, author Bernard Fall was revisiting the road he had immortalized in his 1961 book, Street Without Joy. The Marine had just come in from 10 days in the field and was exhausted, but he was given the assignment to escort Fall on a patrol that was about to leave. The Marine's buddy spoke up and took the assignment so the Marine could rest.
The author and Gunnery Sgt. Byron G. Highland was killed by a land mine in Thua Thien, South Vietnam on that patrol.
The Marine looked at me and said, "It should have been me."
There were tears in his eyes and it was all I could do not to burst into tears. He then told me he had been a combat correspondent and so we talked about that since I was a journalist. I talked to him about sharing his story with us on our blog and I do hope that he does. Dan and I both got the impression that he wanted to talk about the things he saw, the sadness and that it helped him cope as it does for so many. Dan would know better than me, having a common experience as them.
After we talked for awhile, he thanked me for bringing the Wall to him and to the area veterans, hugged me and went home. I stood still for quite awhile, held back tears and took several deep breaths to compose myself.
Not long after the Marine left, I was telling one couple about the history of the Wall and talking about veterans issues with them when another man asked for my help to find a name.
A former military chaplain and I also spent a great deal of time talking about the nightmares from Vietnam, the coping, the stress, the pain and the healing. We talked about PTSD and suicide and the veterans who came home to so many more years of pain. We also talked about ways to do more to help Vietnam veterans and current veterans. We promised to stay in touch and many ideas for programs are now in the works.
The Friday night ceremony was incredible. Easily more than 100 people came out to hear veterans speak, including Dan Gallagher, the Montana attorney general and the former commander of the Montana National Guard. The state officer who heads veterans affairs also attended and those three laid special object at the Wall. During songs from the era, remarks and moments, there were smiles and tears. Family members laid flowers at the Wall, including one woman who lost her husband to the war. Her and I talked for awhile and then she shook my hand and said, "I have to go see my husband now." She came back to me later and asked me how she could support our effort to build the education center that will feature photos of all the names on the Wall. Families, veterans, state officials and others also read the names of Montanas on the Wall and also those from the area killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was an incredibly moving two hours.
I can't do much to take away their suffering, or erase the painful memories of Vietnam or the loss of their friends or the anger. I can't undo the war or anything that happened when they came home. I wasn't even born when the war ended, I don't have the perspective they have.
But, I can bring the Wall to them. I can connect them with other veterans and supporters. I can talk to them, listen to them, do everything I can to help them.
Most importantly, I can tell their stories. They will not be forgotten.