December 1999/January 2000
More Than Just Finding Names
By Jim Belshaw
When you live in a place, you often tend to overlook it, telling yourself
you'll get around to it one day. But that day has a way of being put off. Others
may travel great distances to see what you never get around to seeing. It was
that way with Bill Ellis andThe Wall five years ago, before he went from
avoiding it to becoming intimate with its every detail.
Ellis had been an infantryman and Huey door gunner in Vietnam and made the
Army a career. When he retired, he got a degree in history. When he came back to
the Washington area, he started applying for a job he'd come to find
attractive--a ranger with the National Park Service.
About five years ago, he got the job, and the time had come to visit The
Wall. It would be an integral part of his work now. Along with all the other
monuments, he needed to be familiar with it.
"I knew it was one of the sites here," he said. "The Friday
before I went to work, I told my wife we should walk around and look at all the
sites on the Mall because it had been a long time since I'd visited them. When
you live in a place, you say you'll get around to it, but you don't."
They rode a tour-mobile. The stop at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial didn't
come easily for him.
"I walked on the far side, away from The Wall, and my wife walked
between me and The Wall," he said. "We did a real quick trip
through there, then we slowed down and I started looking at it. It was difficult
Five years later, Ellis is the Volunteer Program Manager for National Capital
Park Central. He oversees 363 volunteers at the National Mall. About 70
requested that they work at the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial. Of that number, Ellis said, about 35 are active.
They look up names, explain the origin of the memorial, the meanings of its
symbols, and in some cases, the history of the Vietnam War. Many are Vietnam
In the five years Ellis has worked in Washington, he has seen a spectrum of
reactions to The Wall.
"It's a mixed bag," he said. "People who don't know why it's
there react as people do everywhere when they come across a monument they don't
understand," he said. "For people who know why it's there, there is a
He once was collecting artifacts left at The Wall and came across a
frame, two photographs, a poem, and a dog tag. The photo showed a young woman
holding a baby; another photo depicted the same woman with three children. There
was a letter addressed to her husband, whose name was on The Wall.
"She was trying to tell him that she got along all right and this was
their son and these were their grandchildren," Ellis said. "I wanted
to write to that woman to tell her how people had been affected by this. Then I
looked again and I saw an address. I wrote a letter to her, but I never mailed
it. I thought this might be her closure, the last thing she's going to do [at The
Wall]. So I decided not to mail the letter. I've got it on file somewhere. I
never even printed it."
Like so many others, he finds the power of The Wall in the names. Many
of the conversations he has with visitors are about them.
"It's personal," he said. "You can build a statue, but it's
still abstract. You put a person's name there, the name he was born with and he
was called, the whole being is in his name. It makes it unique. It's the person,
not a representation of a person."
In his first year, Ellis worked the Monday after Father's Day. At The Wall,
he spoke to three young adults, two men and a woman. He noticed they referred to
each other as brother and
sister. As he continued the conversation, he discovered all three were
members of Sons and Daughters In Touch.
Their fathers' names were on The Wall, and Ellis could not help but
think that if he had started his family before going to Vietnam and his name had
gone up on The Wall, his children might be standing in front of it as
"It affected me tremendously," he said. "I gave them a hug.
The woman said, `That's okay.' Some people come here simply because it's an
X-mark on their tour guide. But The Wall does heal. I'm proof of that. I
didn't really talk that much about Vietnam before coming to work here. I guess
in a way I had no reason to. But now that I'm here, I'm able to talk more about
it without getting so emotional."