"I used to be hard as a rock. I'm like a marshmallow now," he said, tearing up. "You see your friends die, you see their heads blown off, you see their legs blown off. You never get over it."
A number of the World War II veterans planned to attend the ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which for 20 years has been the site of the main Veterans Day event on the mall.
By the start of the ceremony before the black granite panels filled with the names of dead troops, thousands of people had gathered to watch a presentation by the Armed Forces Color Guard and hear remarks by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Vietnam veteran.
Leaning against a tree, an unlit cigar between his fingers, Hank Llewellyn, 58, said he drove down from Pottstown, Pa., to see old friends from his days as an Army machine gunner. As he has grown older, he said, he has become more appreciative of the simple fact that he survived.
"We try not to dwell on the pain," he said. "We try to talk about the funny times. Not that it was a comedy, but there was a lot that was funny. The adhesive of our relationships becomes stronger as the years pass."
Sarah Rogers, 30, of Fredericksburg, stood with her father, James Shipley, 73, who served as a sergeant in the Air Force, and wiped tears from her eyes.
"Just thinking about all those names on the Wall," she said, her arm curled around her 9-year-old daughter, Julia. Nodding toward Shipley, she said, "Had he died over there, I wouldn't exist."
Her father, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, remained expressionless until his daughter walked away to smoke a cigarette. Then his lips trembled slightly.
"You realize that time does heal all wounds, but not completely," he said, head down, his fingers absently jangling a fistful of change in his pocket.