a day in the life...


(at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

Nancy Smoyer

The volunteer is coming on duty. She walks quickly to the National Park Service kiosk to sign in, get the Directory of Names, rubbing papers and pamphlets, puts on her yellow volunteer hat, and starts toward the Wall.

Her pace slows as she pauses to acknowledge the statue of the three fighting men with the thousand yard stare and slows even more as she leaves the hectic pace of the outside world to adapt to the slower, quieter rhythm of the Wall. As she walks the length of the Wall, she scans the visitors looking for anyone who needs assistance. She reads the letters and makes note of other items which have been left by earlier visitors--a high school varsity letter, a newspaper article, a Purple Heart, a picture of a squad of men in Vietnam, many flowers, a POW/MIA bracelet. And so her day begins.

A family comes down the walkway. The little girl is skipping and laughing. Her mother stoops down to talk to her, telling her that this is a serious place, the names of lots of men and women who died in a war in Vietnam are on that wall and their families and friends are coming to see their names. They continue on, the mother holding her daughter's hand as she walks quietly by her side.

A man with greying hair and wearing a business suit walks slowly down the pathway. His body is tight, his hands by his side. He looks only down or at the Wall, stopping occasionally. The volunteer watches him go by, knowing he will be coming back. She hands out a few pamphlets, explains to a couple how the names on the Wall are arranged, and keeps an eye on the man. She looks up the name of a high school classmate for a woman, directs her to the name, offers rubbing paper, and watches the man. He walks slowly back and she goes over to him and quietly asks, "How are you doing?" He says, "OK," stops and quickly turns out toward the grass, fighting for composure. She waits and then says, "Is this your first time here?" He says "yes." And so a conversation begins.

They talk about the war and the people he knew there, the ones who made it back and those who didn't. She asks how he's been doing since he got back and he says pretty well but he has a friend--a buddy of his from Vietnam--who is hurting. She urges him to encourage his friend to go to a Vet Center and to bring him to the Wall so the healing process can begin. After talking for a half an hour or so, he prepares to leave, but before he goes he says, "I didn't think I wanted to talk to anyone, but I'm glad you stopped me." She gives him a hug before he leaves.

A group of three men are talking animatedly, exchanging stories, happy to be there together. After a while the volunteer goes over to them, curious about who they are and what brought them there. She learns that they demonstrated against the war and are now counselors of veterans. One does outreach service with Vietnam vets who live isolated lives in the woods of New England. As they continue talking, one of the men asks about her connection with the Wall and so she shows them the name of a Marine she knew and tells them the story of his death. The ex- protester rubs his fingers over the name again and again as tears flow down his face.

A woman walks back and forth along the Wall crying. The volunteer offers her a tissue and she stops to talk. She didn't know anyone who died in Vietnam and only a few who went, but the impact of the names has overwhelmed her.

Another veteran comes to the Wall for the first time after years of flying in and out of DC as a pilot. He was also a pilot in Vietnam. When asked why he came on that particular summer day, he answers, "Because it's hot and humid." There it is.

A group of veterans come. Most are wearing parts of their uniform from Vietnam. They are a Vet Center rap group and they have worked through to this goal of coming together to see their buddies on the Wall. They hug and cry and laugh and tell stories--and go away lighter.

A distinguished looking couple blend in with the other visitors. They go directly to a panel and a name and stop. She wonders again why no one from his platoon ever got in touch with them. She dabs her eyes, he puts his arm around her, they pause for a few moments and then walk off.

A 12-year-old boy stands crying among his classmates. The girls try to comfort him while the boys giggle self- consciously. The volunteer goes over, puts her arm around him and asks if he has a relative on the Wall. He shakes his head no, but says his mother's boyfriend's name is there. They go off together to do a name rubbing for his mother.

A young man walks up to the volunteer and shows her his silver POW/MIA bracelet. He says he's been wearing one for the past five years--not the same bracelet because he gives them away to people who show interest, but each bracelet had the same name --and he wants to find that name. The volunteer locates it in the Directory and takes him to it. She shows him the plus sign next to the name which indicates the man is missing. She tells him how that sign will be changed to a diamond if the man's remains are found or a circle will be drawn around the plus sign if he returns alive.

A group of women of varying ages slowly filters in. They are nurses and they inquire about the progress of the women's statue. They locate a woman's name on the last panel and one of the nurses tells the volunteer that the two of them were on the plane which was airlifting orphans out of Saigon when it crashed on take-off. Several of her friends are together on the Wall in the lines for those last few days of the war.

A man comes down with his tour group and asks for help finding a name. The man on the Wall was a neighbor of his family who used to shovel their walk. The volunteer offers to do a rubbing for him and as she finishes it, she asks if the soldier's family has been to the Wall. The man says "no" and so another rubbing is done for him to take home to them. And then a third rubbing to give to his own parents in memory of their neighbor.

A jogger, face glistening, clothes wet, walks by greeting the volunteer with a smile. He pauses briefly at a name and goes on out to continue his run.

A vet in jungle fatigues bedecked with ribbons, medals, patches and pins stands alone in front of a panel with a single red rose. She can tell he's been there before and goes over to talk. He says a buddy of his was blown up over there by a grenade--it's the one death he couldn't get over after the war. But when he came to the Wall a couple of years ago, that settled it for him. He doesn't know why except that seeing his friend's name on the Wall with all the others made it final, resolved. But he won't forget, so he wears a black bracelet with his buddy's name engraved on it.

It's dark, her back is aching, she has a slight sunburn, and she knows her ankles will be swollen that night. She starts to leave, but sees a man coming along alone who might need help. Then his buddy catches up with him so she starts out again. A couple asks about the dates 1959 and 1975. She explains and gives them a pamphlet. There are only a few people there now. More will come later tonight when they can be alone. She takes off her hat, passes "her" name, and goes on out.