Most veterans of the Vietnam War came home from a messy conflict overseas to a conflicted country. The protests and derision that greeted them caused many vets to build emotional walls around themselves. 90.3's David C. Barnett reports that, in order to make some sense of their role in the war, some Ohio vets have been able to take some of those walls down...by putting another one up.
David C. Barnett- On a sunny Sunday morning, a half dozen Cuyahoga County war veterans are assembling a replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in the parking lot of the Cleveland Playhouse. It's a half-scale version of the original granite memorial in Washington. This wall consists of 148 black aluminum panels, which are individually bolted together. It's going up in conjunction with a new play that explores the personal connections that Vietnam vets and their families have made with "The Wall".
Richard Oldstrum- If there's one thing I get from this, it's that I didn't forget my brothers.
DCB- Richard Oldstrum secures one of the panels as another member of the crew drills a hole in the asphalt to anchor it in place. Olstrum is an outpatient at the Brecksville V.A. Hospital's Center for Stress Recovery, where he is being treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While PTSD affects a number of veterans, Olstrum feels it is largely misunderstood.
RO- And that's really disheartening for me, as someone who suffers from it. I know Vietnam vets have gotten a bad rap, you know, with any kind of crime...they blame PTSD... They say we're all crazy. And that's not the case.
DCB- The Center for Stress Recovery's Director, David Liebling, has seen many angry and confused veterans soften after an encounter with the Wall. Some have found it to be a place they can express deep feelings of rage and loss merely by touching the name of a lost friend.
David Liebling- There's a sense of duty among many veterans not to forget those that have died. That they should not be forgotten. And taking a rubbing of the name and displaying that name for other people to see is a way of keeping faith with that person in terms of not forgetting their sacrifice.
DCB- The main force behind the Moving Wall is a San Jose-based vet named John Devitt who saw the impact of the Washington memorial and knew there were many who couldn't afford to make the trip to see it. So, with $40,000-worth of contributions, he supervised the construction of three replicas that are now driven around the country for special occasions.
John Roxey calls himself the "Driving Sentinel" of this wall. He is in charge of transporting it from place to place, where local vets are enlisted to put it up. Roxey says he sees the same emotions at each installation. Former soldiers and their families come to take rubbings of the names. Many visitors also leave notes, flowers and other personal items.
That wasn't the reaction expected after architect Maya Lin first unveiled her plans for the monument in 1980. It was derided as a "black gash of shame". Not the noble sort of statue that veterans of other wars had gotten. John Roxey says even he had mixed emotions.
John Roxey- Until I finally saw it for myself...and then it was a completely different feeling I had. It just took a year for everyone to see what she was trying to get across.
DCB- But Ohio native Maya Lin says she wasn't prepared for the taking and leaving of things at the Wall.
Maya Lin- All I knew is that people would come and they would cry and it would be emotional and that would help with the grieving process, but the physical interaction of leaving...and of rubbing... is great. I knew that people would touch names...because...there's just something magical.
DCB- The Center for Stress Recovery's David Liebling believes in the healing powers of the Wall. But he warns that it takes real work for someone to recover from emotional trauma.
DL- People should not be pushed by their families to go. This should be something that the person feels themselves that they're ready to do. And, certainly, if it's done at the right time, it can bring a sense of closure...as much as there is ever closure on something like this. I think many people will tell you that they carry these memories...right to the end.
DCB- The Moving Wall will remain outside the Playhouse through the end of this week. Then, John Roxey and his crew will take it apart, pack it into a trailer emblazoned with the logo "Rolling Thunder"...and drive it down the road to another town. Another chance to evoke some memories and...hopefully...help bring closure to some lives broken open by war so many years ago. For 90.3 News, I'm David C. Barnett.