The Wall That Heals
Team Supervisor Kristi Worthman shares about Team Worthman's recent volunteer opportunity.
On July 11, 2019, Team Worthman, the Repool/Late Stage Collections Team in Westfield, IN, spent the day volunteering at The Wall That Heals during its stop in Greenfield, IN. The Wall that heals is a three-quarters scale replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. This replica travels the country each year, offering an opportunity for visitors to come and remember those who were lost during the Vietnam War. I wanted to share our experience.
Our team is comprised of seven people. Only three of us were alive when the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War; and all of us were too young to remember it at all. Our initial intent in volunteering was to take the opportunity to serve and honor our Veterans. We thought we could direct traffic, pick up trash or hand out literature. I can honestly say none of us knew what to expect when we were told we would be assisting visitors in finding names on the wall. I promise you, none of us expected to walk away feeling as though we were the ones who were served and honored by this experience. But that is exactly what happened.
The event began with a mandatory volunteer meeting. I went to represent the team. The meeting took place at 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, was an hour away from the office and by the time I arrived I was already tired and grouchy from sitting in traffic. After circling for parking, trudging through an acre of ankle-high weeds to the middle of a field where the meeting was taking place, and standing for 20 minutes in direct blazing sun while wearing pantyhose, I was ready for the meeting to be over before it began. As we waited for everyone to join the meeting, I took note of the crowd of volunteers: There was a few of everybody: Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, men and women of all ages dressed for the gym and the office, bikers and older men wearing uniforms and hats from their days in the armed forces.
It was the older men that caught my attention the most. Some of them were leaning on canes and walkers, clearly struggling with the heat and standing for so long on the uneven ground, but stand they did. In fact, they stood a little taller than the rest. They seemed more intent. There was something about their posture and expressions that said there was more purpose and meaning in this than the rest of us could yet grasp.
Education Director Callie began the meeting by describing how and why the memorial came to be. She dispensed facts about the war and outlined the shift in sentiment regarding the Vietnam War that took place in our country during the 20-year conflict. She told us there are 58,276 names on the wall. That number, spoken aloud in front of the 140 panels inscribed with all of the names, felt weighty and overwhelming – until she then started telling us the stories behind the names. She told us about seven of the people listed on the wall: where they were from, where they served and how their lives ended. She told us about the visitors and the items they leave behind. She read some of the notes and words left at the wall. For 90 minutes, she made these young men live again in the hearts and minds of every person there.
The men who caught my attention before the meeting – with their black Veteran hats and white-haired heads bent forward – now shuddered as tears rolled in waves down faces etched by the many years gone by. Every single one of us took a silent breath as we realized the importance of what we were preparing to do: We were going to be a part of making these men and women on this wall more than a name etched in granite.
The next morning, the team and I arrived on that same sunny field, with a promise of a 105-degree heat index. Because we hadn't all been through the meeting, and I knew I couldn't do justice to all that I heard the night before, we had a meeting with Dean, one of the educational directors. I think we were a little unsettled at the idea that we would be greeting visitors and asking if we could help – especially as we had been warned to expect to be told to go away by people who may not want to be interrupted in their thoughts. For the first couple of hours, there were more volunteers than visitors, and we stood back a bit because we didn't want to swarm and overwhelm the visitors. Eventually, the visitors increased, and that's when it happened: We each had our first “official visitor.”
My first was a lady who simply asked me to help her find a young man's name. She said she has visited the wall many times, but this time she was struggling to find him. I helped her find the name on the wall from the database app on my phone. For this particular soldier, there was a link to a photo of him. I asked her if she would like to see it. When I showed it to her, she burst into tears and stopped just short of giving me a huge bear hug. She was sobbing when she told me she had not seen his face in so long. She said he never came home, and that he was missing and presumed killed in action. She told me how she visited Saigon in February in hopes of seeing where he had been, but hadn't been allowed on the base. Half of a lifetime after he left for war, she was still looking – and still mourning.
As the day passed, and I encountered more and more visitors looking for names, the cost of war became so much more than the abstract concept I've been taught to honor. There were nurses who served these soldiers in military hospitals who came with their lists of names to look up. They came hoping none of those names made it onto the wall. There were the family members who came to make a pencil rubbing of their loved one's name. There was the grandpa walked the wall while teaching his young grandson about the war and why people came to the wall. There were tears, flags, pictures, letters and even a leather biker vest left at the wall. And there were also the men who had served in “Nam." You didn't have to look too hard to spot them. They were the ones still carrying their brothers in arms on their shoulders – all the way from Vietnam and through the past 50 years.
We looked at the pictures and read the stories of the 11 “Hometown Heroes" from Greenfield, Indiana, and the surrounding counties. All of these men were 18-years-old when they left their family home and headed off to war. All but two were casualties before their 22nd birthday. Some had especially vivid stories, like “Doc" Draper, who was killed while guarding a wounded soldier. He was found with an IV bag in one hand and his service pistol in the other. Even so, by the end of our day, it was clear that there was no lack of valor, even when there was no vivid story on a poster.
After the day, the team and I shared our experiences with one another. We all came to the same conclusion: The price of war is not counted only in the number of casualties. It's counted in the holes left in families, hearts, minds and bodies. It's counted in feelings those who haven't been there can only guess at – a mix of pride, grief, horror, questioning, thankfulness and so much else that still burns brightly years later. We only saw a glimpse of the torrent of all of this – something that can't quite be communicated, but cuts to the heart. All of us ended the day with a far deeper appreciation for the men and women who serve, and we are humbled still.
A training session introduced Associates to the wall and its stories.
Carrington volunteers assisted Veterans and their families find the people they were searching for.
As the day passed, Associates would encounter more and more visitors searching for their friends and loved ones.
Visitors pause for private reflection.
The wall is a somber sight after dark.