A Night to Remember – The Vietnam Wall
Slice Of Life
By – Sheri de Grom
I did not want to travel to Washington, DC. Nor did I want to contemplate the endless possibilities for career advancement about which everyone discussed ad nauseam. At the time, my husband and I were living a stone’s throw from the breathtaking Pacific of the central coast of California.
My career track with the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate (OSJA) was already set before me and I could climb the proverbial ladder of success from where I was. I’d already written legislation and shepherded it through both houses of Congress before I became a member of the Judge Advocate General.
We were ten years away from serious discussions of the possibility of Fort Ord’s closing. Everyone said it wouldn’t happen.
I was the newest professional member of the OSJA team and no one wanted to attend a required week-long conference in DC, not in the heat and humidity of summer. I’d only been a member of the team for three months.
I was ordered to go to the conference. I don’t remember much about the lectures except they bored me beyond reason for a full week.
Planned night-time activities were non-existent. Everyone went their own way at the end of the day. It was unlike any gathering of professionals of which I’d ever been a part. Did I have a big sign pointing to me that read, “Newbie?”
What I do remember is how naïve I was. Forget my advanced college degrees, forget my world travel experience and every thread of common sense I might have ever had. I look back and shudder when I remember how fearless and determined I’d been.
I wanted to see some of DC before I returned to Monterey. At the very least I had to see the Vietnam Memorial.
The wall was at the top of my places to visit. I knew it would be an emotional experience. The Vietnam Conflict claimed the life of my first husband and twin brothers. That conflict sure seemed like a war to me.
The hotel concierge had gone for the day and I asked the desk clerk the best way to get to the memorial. He pushed himself away from the counter and said, “You can’t get to the Mall. Not this time of night.”
I didn’t understand. “I don’t want to go to a mall; I want to see the Vietnam Memorial.”
“Lady, that’s where the memorial is, on the Mall and you can’t get there tonight.”
Confused, I said, “Thank you,” and returned to my room. I had a guidebook and, after consulting it, I understood what the desk clerk had said.
Studying the metro maps, it seemed simple enough to get from the hotel to the memorial. What I didn’t consider was the time of night and that I’d be alone. I’d never been afraid for myself but I’d never been alone in metropolitan DC at night.
Taking just enough cash for metro tickets and a taxi to and from the metro, I checked my jewelry, cash and wallet into the hotel safe.
God was with me that night as I bought my first ticket after ten p.m. in an empty metro tunnel. Without a doubt, He was with me the entire time I was away from the hotel.
Two metro changes later, I popped up out of the ground at the Foggy Bottom Metro Stop. The night was black but it was also crystal clear and my path glimmered ahead of me.
I walked alone, but not alone, next to the reflecting pool on that hot summer night all those years ago. A calmness enveloped me that I haven’t often known. Life seemed simple, unreal. I was where I shouldn’t be – and yet I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
The Vietnam Memorial had tugged at my heart from a far away place for too many years. I could not leave DC without having paid my proper respects. I’d lost far too many loved ones to that useless conflict. Seen far too many coffins lowered into the ground. I’d been presented with my very own folded flag along with the “Gratitude from a grateful nation.” In short, I had to visit The Wall.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact I felt as I rounded the far end of the memorial. Lights reflected off the black granite gently illuminating the endless sea of names that stretched out in front of me.
I witnessed what I’d only read about before: combat boots at the base of The Wall, fresh flowers, photographs, letters and other memorabilia. I’d arrived at The Wall that night with my heart in my hands for the three men I’d loved and lost.
I knew about the books where you could look up the names to find their exact location. I wasn’t ready for that step just yet. I’d had enough reality for one visit. I left.
Feeling the marble as I reached the steps of the Lincoln Memorial eased my burdens a bit. I sat at the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that night and remembered the years that had come before and thought about the life I had yet to live.
My grandmother was fond of saying; God takes care of babies and fools. I’m sure she would have placed me in the fool category that particular night. Later when I told her the story of my midnight visit to the memorial, we hugged and cried for the grandsons and my husband. She was a brave woman, a prairie woman, and we both agreed the Vietnam Conflict was a waste from the beginning.
I’ve remembered that particular night from long ago with clarity when I’ve forgotten so many others. I believe it will stay in my heart for the remainder of my days.