By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Steve Kowaleski has made a Veterans Day pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for each of the past 14 years, and the experience never gets any easier.
More than 35 years after he served, he said yesterday, standing a few yards from the Wall, he still grapples with the reality that his friends never made it home.
They were comrades he knew from growing up in Bristol, Conn., and men he met in Vietnam. Altogether, Kowaleski said, he knew more than 20 people whose names are inscribed on the memorial.
"It's a place of saying goodbye -- still saying goodbye," he said softly, hands clasped at his waist, sunglasses concealing his eyes. "That's why I come back every year."
On a day when the country saluted the military with somber ceremonies and small-town parades, thousands of veterans and their families gathered at the Vietnam memorial to pay homage to the 58,249 missing and dead whose names are etched on the Wall.
At Arlington National Cemetery, President Bush laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and praised members of the armed services, past and present.
"From Valley Forge to Vietnam, from Kuwait to Kandahar, from Berlin to Baghdad, our veterans have borne the costs of America's wars, and they have stood watch over America's peace," the president said. "The American people are grateful to the veterans and all who have fought for our freedom."
Referring to Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush hailed U.S. troops, saying, "They've brought down tyrants. They've liberated two nations. They have helped bring freedom to more than 50 million people."
At the ceremony at the Vietnam memorial, a bagpiper performed a rendition of "Amazing Grace," and a bugler played taps.
Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne laid a wreath for his brother, Patrick, who died in Vietnam on Aug. 8, 1966. It was the same day the secretary graduated from West Point and reported to the Air Force.
"This wall tells the story of those who fought in Vietnam, and it links us to future generations of American soldiers," Wynne said. "As Air Force secretary, I think daily of our forebears and the legacy of sacrifice and valor."
Elizabeth Lopez, who served in Iraq, told the crowd of the kinship she felt with Vietnam veterans when her tour of duty ended and she returned to her native El Paso.
Until then, she said, she never understood the true meaning of the words "welcome home."
"Every time I hear it, that knot in my throat is still there," she said. When Lopez's remarks ended, the audience rose from their seats and applauded.
Standing with a few friends in the back of the crowd, Ray Heikkila, 58, an Army veteran, said he looks forward to Veterans Day because he sees people who understood what remains a defining part of his life.
"It's like a healing," he said. "You get to sit down with other vets and get things off your chest."
His pal, Jim LaManna, 59, wore a camouflage jacket with an American flag stitched to the back. He said he knows veterans who refuse to make the trip because "they don't want to hear about the war."
But LaManna said he has never felt that way, if only because of an innate sense of duty to recognize the fallen. "I was there. I know the guys who died there," he said. "It's a brotherhood, a camaraderie thing."
He tapped his fist on his chest.
"It's here," he said, "in the heart and soul."