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march/april 2008

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BY FRED J. WILHELM
A light rain is falling. Marilyn and I hear something in the distance, a voice, but we cannot make out what is being said. Walking closer, I can hear names being read one by one. We are in Washington, D.C., to visit two old friends, Raymond J. Kiesler and Charles Hicks.

Closer now, I can see The Wall and veterans, friends, and families listening in the rain to the names being read.

We walk by the vendors, and we look at the Three Soldiers, at their equipment, the M-60 and the M-16. And always in the air, the names are being read, one by one.

I gaze at the people touching and staring at the names, hugging each other and leaving mementos. A stage with a podium stands in the grassy area. From here, more than 58,000 names are being read day and night until they are all heard by the men and women who have been here for 25 years.

I ask the man with the sign-in book if there are any open time slots to read names. He looks and yes, there is an open time in 30 minutes. I think he will give me a sheet with five names; instead, he hands me Sheet 545 with thirty names. Now I’m really nervous, feeling like an F.N.G. in front of all these people.

We move to the seats in front of the stage so I can study my names. Some are easy: Terrence Lee Priest, Jackie Kenneth Reed, Gregory John Scott, Leon Simms, Richard A. Worth. And with others, I know I am in trouble: Edward Charles Rozanski, Varde Weston Smith III, Mervyn Donald Tedds, Dieter Hans Burger, Merle Deane Turner. While I study my names, other names are being read, and they fill the air around us.

My time already? It’s four o’clock. I move on stage with the other readers. I fall in line behind the man with Sheet 544 and wait my turn, watching those reading before me and getting more nervous. All read slowly and with dignity; a few voices crack. I silently read my names again, roll the sheet in my hands, and step up to the podium. There are people behind me at The Wall and in front of me in the seats, all listening. I take off my Chapter 311 hat, set it on the podium, and start to read: Gilbert Solano Salazar, Albert Willard Santos, Keith Francis Sharp, Michael Francis Shea, Manford Dalvis Stewart.

It is going okay; I try to look at the audience after each name. Jack Edwin Telling, Fredrick Lamar Thrower, Lawrence Daniel Torrez, Eric Michael Wardwell, Steven James Wright. It’s starting to get to me, and I feel a lump growing in my throat. Arnold Benson, Jr., William Robert Brennan, Elmer Don Byrd. I start to lose it, my eyes water, and I am thinking they would be my age now, and I could have been in their places on this list. David Calvitti, Donald William Downing, Earl William Fernandez.

I stop for air, no longer able to look up, fearing I won’t be able to continue; I do not want to let them down. I catch my breath: Charles Hartsell Gobble, Thomas Patterson Hanson. I feel like The Wall is listening as I breathe in again, closer to the end: William Eugene Hargrove and George Ward Henry, Jr. My voice cracking, tears in my eyes, I say “God bless you all” as I turn and salute The Wall.

On my way down the stage steps, a fellow veteran reaches out, gives me a hug, and says, “Welcome home.”

Marilyn walks over to me. With tears in our eyes, we hug and then go to The Wall to visit Ray and Charles, who have been waiting so long. In the air, there’s the sound of the names being read, one by one.

Fred J. Wilhelm is a member of VVA Des Plaines, Illinois, Chapter 311. He served with the 272nd Military Police Company, First Field Force, Vietnam, October 1968 to January 1970. He can be reached by email at GarBird11@aol.com.

 

 

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