But unlike others who returned home with invisible wounds, Frank Neary Sr., a Marine who enlisted at 17, had a tangible reminder. His left leg had been pierced by a sniper’s bullet and was 4 inches shorter than his right. Over the years, he would endure one surgery after another, and was scheduled for one in 2006 when he died in the hospital.
His name was one of the last added to the war memorial earlier this month. The younger Neary, of Shrewsbury, N.J, recalled the first time he saw it. He was taken aback by the “scale of loss,” he said: “The amount of stories that could be told, and that I only knew one of them, was humbling and breathtaking.”
He said he was honored to participate in Monday’s wreath-laying. Still, he can only imagine what his father, a man who carried the guilt of coming home when others didn’t, would think of it all.
“My father would probably say, ‘Forget all the pomp and circumstance — just buy me a beer,’ ” Neary said. “I think he would see it as more of a testament to everyone else on the Wall than a testament to him. That’s the way I think he would like it to be seen.”
David Klinker, 69, of Greenville, S.C., who also placed a wreath, said his sister Mary Klinker, one of eight women whose names are on the Wall, would be proud. “Proud of what she’d done and probably upset that she didn’t finish the job the way she wanted to,” he said.
Mary Klinker, an Air Force nurse, died in 1975 during Operation Babylift. She had volunteered to transport Vietnamese orphans destined for adoption in the United States and elsewhere. From what her brother knows about that day, a door flew open on the C-5A and the crash killed everyone on the lower deck of the two-level aircraft, including his sister. She was 28.
“This October she would have been 65 years old, which I can’t believe,” Klinker said. “I can’t think of her as anything but my little sister who I used to pick on.”
Brown said she has tried many times to imagine how Sabo would look now. But she can’t. In the photos she has of him, he wears thick- rimmed glasses and an inviting smile.
“They say love at first sight and that’s what it was for me,” she said. She first saw him at a football game with friends and introduced herself. By the end of the night, she said, they were a couple. “I just kept falling deeper and deeper.”
A year later they were engaged and a year after that he was drafted. They married during a weekend break in his training and spent one month together before he was deployed.
For decades, Brown knew only that Sabo died during combat. Then, several years ago, the men he fought alongside tracked her down and told her in full what happened: Sabo was killed while saving other soldiers during a North Vietnamese ambush that claimed seven other men.
Over the years, Brown said she has grown close to those men and knew that on Monday, wherever they were, they, along with the crowd, would be watching her. From the stories they’ve told her, she said, some came home to the label “baby killer” and others fell into drugs and homelessness. She said it’s about time they see the country’s gratitude.
“It should have been done a long time ago,” Brown said. “ But the ones I talked to said, ‘It’s over with. They’re welcoming us home now and that’s what matters.’ ”