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Moving monument moves veterans

A replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall visits Wilmington

WILMINGTON—Rain pours. The day-long storm stains the landscape along Route 100 varying shades of grey. Flocks of mallard ducks drift through pools formed in waterlogged fields.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall rises from Howe Field. Its mirrored surface, broken by lines of white, reflects visitors counting year, panel, line for the names of their fathers, brothers, sons, cousins, friends.

The aluminum panels are a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the Constitution Gardens, on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

The replica travels the country to bring the Vietnam Memorial into communities, including Wilmington, where it was on display from June 13 to 17.

Called the “Moving Wall,” the idea for the replica grew from work by John Devitt, Gerry Haver, and Norris Shears, three Vietnam veterans from California.

According to documents available at the installation, the three wanted to “keep alive and share the power and good that Devitt had experienced” at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication ceremony in November 1982.

Construction on the Moving Wall, paid for by public contributions, started early in 1983 and was completed Oct. 11, 1984.

The first public showing was four days later in Tyler, Texas.

“People can’t really fathom 58,000 names,” says Michael Linnenhan, commander of American Legion Nelson E. Pickwell Post 15, who has served nearly 20 years as a medic, first in the Navy, then the Air Force, and now the Air Force Reserve.

“But if you have something to look at, or touch,” the people behind the names feel real, he says.

Linnenhan served two tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2008, transporting seriously wounded soldiers from field hospitals in Iraq to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the first stop for casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan before they return to the United States for further care.

The turnaround for the wounded from helicopter to an operating room in Iraq was 15 minutes, with a 98 percent “save rate,” he said.

Over six months in 2008, Linnenhan helped transport 2,585 soldiers and civilian contractors to Germany.

Now, Linnenhan smiles at the sheets of rain, weather that he describes as “okay.”

The rain might give people a “small indication” of what soldiers went through with the rain, weather, wet clothes, and cold, he points out.

There’s a lot that people take for granted, like hot showers, he said. In the field in Iraq, soldiers used baby wipes to clean up after working in temperatures of 120 degrees in the shade.

“This time, we’ll get it right,” said Linnenhan.

To him, the phrase means never mistreating veterans the way some were when they returned home.

Linnehan says that despite that, Vietnam vets have continued to give back. Since 1970, Vietnam veteran Walter White has ensured American flags are placed on the graves of local veterans.

“It’s not a job to him. He does it on his own,” Linnenhan says.

Despite their harsh treatment, the Vietnam veterans did not hold onto anger, he adds. Instead, they turned their emotions around to help future veterans.

In 2008, Linnenhan landed with his fellow soldiers at Baltimore Airport on his way home from Iraq. Hundreds of Vietnam veterans greeted the returning soldiers.

A veteran handed Linnenhan a sandwich, a bag of snacks, and a bottle of water. “Welcome home,” he told the returning soldier.

“I never felt something like that before,” Linnenhan says.

These people took time to welcome back military members they never met or served with, he notes.

“As a combat veteran, I’d like to thank all the Vietnam vets for turning the tables and coming out to support us,” he says.

A not-very-good homecoming

“We received one [homecoming], but it wasn’t a very good one,” recalls Marine Corps combat veteran Leo Tucker, 65. “I’m sure you’ve read about it. I lived it.”

Imagine, he says, coming back from Vietnam and having neighbors and friends — the same people who should support you — calling you “baby killer,” spitting on you, throwing red paint on your uniform.

These veterans already survived a traumatic situation, he says, “and [you’ve] seen your friends blown apart.”

“If you haven’t been there, then don’t ask,” he says of war.

As a result, he says, most Vietnam veterans have stayed silent about their experiences until the 1980s.

“This is my first trip to the Wall,” said Tucker, who spent considerable time in a military hospital in the United States. He feels the months he spent recovering allowed him to “decompress.”

Tucker says he initially worried about visiting the moving wall, as he was unsure of his emotions.

“I have 27 names on that wall,” he says.

Those are the 27 fellow Marines who died in one battle.

Only Tucker and two other men survived.

“It’s hard not to feel guilty that you’re here and they’re not,” he says.

When his son, Richard, a third-generation Marine, returned from Iraq, Tucker says, “I was never so glad to see him in my life.”

“I now know what my mother went through,” he says.

Tucker’s father, who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, served in World War II and Korea. Tucker says his grandfather was a mule skinner in World War I. His great-grandfather fought in the Spanish-American War.

“Better late than never,” Tucker says of people who now recognize the service of Vietnam veterans — but “the damage is done, unfortunately.”

Tucker says that he watched the first protests against the first Iraq War, thinking, “Oh, God, not again.”

Tucker points out that soldiers fight to protect Americans’ rights — rights like free speech.

“[Civil liberties have been] paid for by blood since the Revolution in this country,” he says.

He says it’s fine to protest a war — but don’t protest the soldiers.

“Going after the serviceman is stupid,” says Tucker.

Two years in the waiting

Wilmington Town Clerk and Selectboard member Susan Haughwout organizes the Memorial Day program at the Memorial Hall for Post 15 with Whitingham resident Wendy Pratt.

Two years ago, Houghwout applied online to bring the Moving Wall to town. This past February, she received word via an email that the town would host the wall in June.

Haughwout wrote to local organizations to help cover expenses.

The main financial support came from the Wilmington Fund, the local Masonic Lodge, Post 15, Deerfield Valley Rotary, and the towns of Wilmington and Dover.

Habitat for Humanity volunteers built a foundation for the wall during its visit. The Wilmington Beautification Committee also chipped in, Haughtwout says. Members of the Living History organization would hold an encampment onsite and provide security. Dot’s of Dover, North Star Bowl, Wahoo’s, and West Dover Joe’s would provide food.

Mount Snow Ski Resort donated the use of Howe Field.

Haughwout and Pratt grew up in the Wilmington area and attended high school during the Vietnam War.

People aren’t used to the draft system now, she observes, but as teens, the two watched nightly on television as friends’ draft numbers came up.

“We waited and watched the numbers,” she says.

Pratt and Haughwout left the area for college and work before resettling in their home communities.

When she returned, Haughwout says, it became clear to her that the Vietnam veterans were not treated well when they came home compared to how fellow citizens treated her father, a veteran of World War II.

She and Pratt volunteer for the American Legion to show “honor, respect, and [to] thank them [veterans] for their service on [her and Pratt’s] behalf.”

“We want to do something to make it right for our era,” she says.

A poignant part of bringing the wall to town for Haughwout is remembering her friend Raymond E. Finnegan, a two-time Purple Heart awardee and Vietnam veteran.

Finnegan, 69, died May 30. According to his obituary, he served in Vietnam from 1966 until 1968. He assisted his wife, Mary Jane, at the Wilmington Village Pub for 28 years.

According to Haughwout, he saw the original monument in Washington D.C. and the replica in Bennington. But he didn’t live long enough to see the Moving Wall in Wilmington.

History classes and a military family

Husband and wife Richard and Gretchen Tucker are members of the Living History Association.

Richard served a 4{1/2}-month combat tour in Iraq and 6{1/2} years in the Marines. He studies history at Keene State College.

In his opinion, history classes rarely show the G.I.’s point of view. Instead, teachers talk about the war in Vietnam as a list of events, rather than about fighting months on end.

The media and politicians lost the Vietnam war, he believes — not the soldiers.

“It’s the same in Iraq,” he says. “It takes a 20-minute phone call to shoot a gun.”

Although Richard says he understands that the government is trying to avoid collateral damage, the red tape usually only “causes damage to our own people.”

“I was in the last Marine unit out [of Iraq],” he said.

Richard has made two visits to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.

“[The Wall] is incredible every time you go,” he said.

Gretchen, also a student at Keene State, did not serve in the military, but her father and grandfather did.

Gretchen says the moving memorial is significant because it allows everyone to see the memorial, even people with limited funds or health issues that prohibit traveling.

The memorial is also important, Richard says, because it compels visitors to remember the soldiers forgotten by their country.

Richard said his homecoming “was 100 percent different” from his father’s return from Vietnam.

“To show your support, to show your reverence is really pivotal,” he says of visitors coming to see the wall.

Reaching out

John Miner echoes the sentiment, repeating the Vietnam Veterans of America’s motto:“Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”

Miner helped bring the moving wall to Bennington in 1994 and 2005. He has assisted organizers in Wilmington prepare for hosting the installation.

He helped found and coordinate the Veterans Outreach & Family Resource Center in Bennington, which is under the auspices of Green Mountain Vietnam Era Veterans Assistance Corporation.

Miner did two tours of duty in Vietnam. He served 17 years as the state president of the Vietnam Veterans of America. He now serves as regional director for the association, which has more than 600 chapters in the country. Vermont has seven.

The organization does a lot of advocating for veterans from all wars, he says.

Volunteers staff the outreach center daily. Weekly, trained service officers, accredited by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, help veterans and their families apply for services and benefits.

The big stumbling block between many veterans and the benefits they’ve been promised is the government’s massive backlog of claims, says Miner.

The processing time has improved, he notes. He then laughs grimly. Although the Secretary of Veterans Affairs wants a waiting time of 125 days, the average wait for a claim is 200 days and as long as two years.

Miner says that veterans who have waited between one to two years have had their claims marked “priority.” The federal government bounces priority claims to state-level offices that have a smaller backlog.

Vermont and New Hampshire receive multiple claims from places like Boston because they have less of a backlog.

Amid the red tape are health issues of critical urgency for those who have served, and Vietnam veterans want to impress on the younger soldiers and veterans the danger of holding things in.

Miner says that he’s seen statistics that show about 18 military suicides daily.

These young soldiers are serving on as many as five tours, he says, and they don’t serve and come home. They fight, they come home for a few months, they leave to fight again, they return yet again.

“We’re always looking to help veterans,” he says.

Many veterans don’t know about the free help offered by Outreach and Family Services (802-753-7720), which addresses the needs of both veterans and their families. It’s not uncommon, he says, that a husband will die and the organization will help his wife apply for spousal benefits.

“You can only take so much,” Miner says.

Outreach services let veterans know they’re not alone, he says. “And the guys are not alone if they open their arms and accept others.”

“We [veterans and counselors] can show you,” he says. “But if you don’t want to apply, that’s something you have to do.”

Vermont veterans fought to have more community-based outreach clinics in the state., and now smaller VA clinics serve patients in Bennington, Brattleboro, and Rutland. They help veterans receive health care closer to home.

Tracking veterans and keeping statistics didn’t happen for many Vietnam veterans, Miner points out. Organizations like the VVA advocated for these statistics to be kept.

The VVA has fought the military’s practice of dishing out “personality disorder” or “adjustment disorder” discharges, which the organization describes on its website as “wrongful.”

The discharges block veterans from receiving multiple health-care benefits like disability pay. The VVA estimates the U.S. Department of Defense has handed out 26,000 personality disorder or adjustment disorder discharges to save $4.5 billion in medical care and $8 billion in disability compensation.

Miner theorizes that the government didn’t want to pay for treatment of issues like PTSD, so it discharged soldiers on the grounds that they had a personality disorder before entering the service.

Miner laughs sarcastically at the concept that the military was saying that these service personnel had disorders worthy of discharge, yet they served as fine soldiers all the time they were in the military.

“It’s ridiculous,” he says.

Since coming to office, President Barack Obama has raised the VA’s budget. That’s a positive thing, Miner says, but the system still has a lot of catching up to do.

Like the others, Miner says that he was not well-received by the community when he returned home from Vietnam.

The homecoming convinced him not to speak about his experiences. He went to work. He raised a family.

In 1991, however, Miner says he realized, “Wait, I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Like many people that year, Miner sat in his living room mesmerized by scenes of the U.S. air attack on Baghdad during the start of the first Gulf War. The fire blasts, rockets, the sound of explosions reverberated on the TV screen.

“It brought it all back into focus,” he says.

Twice, Miner almost died in Vietnam.

Once he fell into a rushing river. Someone pulled him out.

The second time, “God was on my side that day.”

Miner says he realized then that it was time for him to give back.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #208 (Wednesday, June 19, 2013).

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