By Tom Keating
Hometown Weekly Contributor
My Vietnam War was a mix of crushing heat and tremendous rain, long days working, and rocket and sapper attacks at our base. I worked as an administrative clerk for the 47th Military History Detachment, and later for the general staff at USARV HQ in Long Binh Post north of Saigon from September 1969 till September 1970.
When I came home, I readjusted to civilian life to forget the Army and Vietnam. Never talked about it, except to family. Didn’t join any veterans group, didn’t put it on my resume after hiring managers balked at hiring me when they saw I was a Vietnam veteran.
So, when I heard they were dedicating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC in 1982, I was surprised at my desire to be there for the dedication of a Memorial to the war I never talked about.
I flew down from Boston on November 10, 1982. I walked over to the Memorial site on the Mall. People were wandering all around and on top of the black granite walls, because the Memorial was below street level. Many were rubbing paper and pencil over a loved one’s name on the granite. The haunting movie theme from “Chariots of Fire” gently played from large speakers. People were leaving photos, teddy bears, rosaries, and other mementos at the base of the Memorial.
I was taking photos and interviewing veterans when I noticed a veteran on crutches, standing away from The Wall, back near some trees. His right foot was in a cast, and he was wearing camouflage jungle fatigues and a faded boonie hat. He wore a Hawaii state flag shoulder patch on his sleeve.
I walked over and asked him why he had come. His name was Jay and he told me that he came because he wanted to see his buddies’ names on the Memorial, but he could not bring himself to get any closer to The Wall. “Too much hurt,” he said. He lumbered back toward the trees.
The highlight of the week, aside from the dedication ceremony, was the reception for General Westmoreland. Cheers and applause for “Westy” rang through the hotel lobby and ballroom. “Westy is here!” men shouted. Veterans in fatigues saluted him sharply as he walked past them. It was electric to see their affection for a man who had sent them to terrible places like the la Drang Valley, or Khe Sanh, or Hue.
I left Washington with a new sense of pride in my service, no longer ashamed of being a Vietnam veteran. Over the next few years, whenever I was in Washington on business, I made it a point to visit the Memorial.
Thirty-four years passed, and one day, I received an email from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) looking for volunteers to read the names on The Wall for the upcoming thirty-fifth anniversary of the Memorial’s dedication. I signed up right away.
When I arrived at the Memorial that day, volunteers from the memorial team handed me the list of names and an events schedule. The next day, I joined the line of readers. The weather that day was cold. Steady rain came and went, but the large crowd did not move while the names were read. I checked my list one more time, then a volunteer motioned me to go. It was my turn. I went to the podium and began to read my thirty names – “Paul Glenn Forbes, Jr.,” “Jay Edward Forsberg,” with a healthy pause between each name.
When I finished my list, my wife and I walked over to the statue of the “Three Soldiers” for more photos. Gray-haired men, some wearing vests covered with military patches and Vietnam medals were taking photos. They saw my Vietnam medals on my jacket and came over and said, “Welcome home, brother,” and shook my hand. It was 1982 again. I noticed that there were a lot of “grandpa groups”, families who came with the grandpa or grandma who was a Vietnam vet. The families were honoring their grandparents’ service so many years ago.
Then a group of Vietnamese tourists came to take pictures of the statue. I stepped away from the statue, but they shook their heads, they wanted me in their photos when they saw my medals. A man in the group, who was about my age, asked if I was there. I said yes and he said, “me too, other side” and smiled. We shook hands. He was not the first former enemy veteran I had met in my life after the war, but I thought how appropriate it was to greet him here.
It has been forty years since the dedication of this Monument to those Americans who perished there. A celebration was held this week. Once again I read names. It is my honor and privilege.
Thomas Keating served in Vietnam in 1969-70.