WASHINGTON - Under blue skies on a sunny fall day, thousands of Vietnam War veterans, family members and other supporters gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to pause in quiet reflection and remember those who died in the war, and to honor all who have served.
"This is a wall that recognizes those who love their country and made the supreme sacrifice," retired Gen. Colin Powell said at the Veterans Day event at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Nov. 11.
"I have visited this wall many times and have often said that there is magic on this wall," said the Vietnam veteran, former secretary of state and ex-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. "I have brought visitors from other nations here to show them how we respect those who served and died for our nation."
Powell, noting the day is the 20th anniversary of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, recognized the women who served in Vietnam.
"On this Veterans Day, let's give thanks to all the veterans who served and especially to the women who served silently and who are now only in recent years getting the recognition they deserve," he said.
"Let us ask God to bless our troops still in combat, to bless our veterans and bless this wonderful country of ours," he said.
Veterans and their loved ones paused in solemn tribute to the fallen; they touched the black granite wall in emotional remembrance of those who did not make it home, and made rubbings of the names of service members.
More than 58,000 names are etched in the wall.
Veterans and family members, the young and the old, made their way past the names, passing roses, pictures, notes, and other mementos left at the wall in a silent memorial to the fallen service members.
Army veterans James Levine and Tom Brown drove from Orlando, Fla., to visit the memorial on Veterans Day. They plan to travel on to Ground Zero in New York City to pay their respects to those killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Levine, who was in Vietnam from 1973 to 1975, said Veterans Day means a tremendous amount to him.
"This is our way of gathering and showing our respect for the brothers that have not returned," he said. "As an American, I'm proud."
Brown, who was in Vietnam 1968 to 1969, said he shares camaraderie with the other veterans at the memorial.
He struggled for decades after Vietnam, Brown said, adding it took 40 years before he could cry or feel emotions again. He acknowledged the times are different now, and service members are now going to get help for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"There's a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "It's a traumatic experience, just like a bad automobile accident, you never forget it."
He said he and Levine do group facilitating for veterans, and that he helped start a veterans connection group in Orlando.
"It's just vets helping vets cope," Brown said.
Hank Llewellyn just met Levine and Brown, but said he felt a kinship and was able to share stories about the Army, Vietnam and life in general. The trip to Washington brings more healing, he said.
Llewellyn said he was drafted for the war and was in Vietnam, from 1967 to 1968.
"When I got back from Vietnam, it wasn't a very popular thing to be a veteran, so I more or less put Vietnam behind me, or I tried to," he said.
He said he came to the wall for the dedication in 1982, and has been back every year, with the exception of just one time.
In stark contrast to the Vietnam era, he said, the country now appreciates those who have served in the military. He said that support makes him feel great.
"You have children coming up to you thanking you for your service," he said. "It just makes it all that much better to come here, and go home with a good feeling for another year."
Bill Boyce, Bob Matulac and Bob Hansen each traveled from a different location: Illinois, California and New Jersey, respectively, to meet up with each other in Washington.
They placed a wreath in honor of their fellow service members with a company of the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry. They come each year to honor those who served in Vietnam.
"It reflects back to all the fellows we had with us that didn't make it back, and the ones that were wounded," said Hansen. "It's a very important day to us."
VIETNAM WOMEN'S MEMORIAL
Women who served in Vietnam told their stories of service at the Vietnam Women's Memorial, as they marked two decades since the statue's dedication.
Wreaths encircled the memorial; Bibles, and photographs of nurses who died in Vietnam were at its base. Visitors gently placed red roses, one by one, at the memorial.
The speeches of the female Vietnam veterans were recorded for archiving in the Library of Congress where they can be viewed for generations to come, said Diane Carlson Evans, who was an Army nurse in Vietnam and who led the years-long effort to have a memorial established for the women who served in that conflict.
"We have to come now to share those stories because someday we won't be able to," she said. "If it wasn't for this Vietnam Women's Memorial that we dedicated 20 years ago, we wouldn't be here sharing these stories. We wouldn't be here connecting."
The women's memorial is a place of healing, sharing stories, connecting, and educating others about the role of women in Vietnam, she said.
An Army nurse, Anne Koch Voigt, and a Soldier, Larry Sudweeks, shared their story about how they reunited, for the first time since the war, at the memorial this Veterans Day.
"We're thankful to you and you will always be in our hearts; you will never be erased," said Koch Voigt about the Soldiers whom the nurses treated. Koch Voigt was in Vietnam for one year, beginning in December 1968, with the 93rd Evacuation Hospital.
Sudweeks said he was shot, had shrapnel wounds and almost died on the operating table. He said he was in intensive care for 45 days, and his family was told to plan a funeral.
Koch Voigt said she never forgot about that young man. Years later, he received a letter in the mail from her.
"It was at Christmastime," he said. "I opened the letter, and I saw this picture and I teared up. That was me," he said, noting he was thankful he was finally able to fill the void in the process of healing, by thanking a nurse who helped save his life.
The women's memorial is a bronze statue that features an injured service member and three women. One of the women, a nurse, is cradling an injured Soldier, while one woman looks skyward as if for intervention from a helicopter or perhaps from God, and the third woman is anguished and holding a helmet.
The women's memorial is a place of healing for not only the women who served, but also for the men who were cared for by the women, said Carlson Evans.