Engraved in Their Minds
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Even now, the sound of a helicopter or a phrase of Vietnamese can carry Len Funk back to the war.
In a bar or restaurant, Mike Kentes still sits where he can keep an eye on the door.
And years after Hugh Jordan would sleep through the roar of outgoing artillery, his ears still ring from the thunder of the heavy guns.
Twenty-five years ago, the three men were young and proud as they attended the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, marching in berets and fatigues only a decade or so removed from the battlefield and basking in the applause.
This week, thousands like them are again gathering in Washington, this time to observe the 25th anniversary of the Wall. A downtown parade and other activities are scheduled for Saturday, and commemorative ceremonies will be held Sunday at the Wall.
But now the men and women of the Vietnam War era are aging and gray and more than 30 years removed from the conflict. Many have jobs near the top of their fields, and, numbering 7.2 million, they make up the nation's largest veterans group. Seventeen of them sit in Congress.
"Military veterans of Vietnam have had an extraordinary influence on American society," said Jan C. Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which built the Wall.
They have clout and respect, and the old fatigue jacket now is often worn mostly for yardwork.
Yet, despite the passing of time and the veterans' ascent to mainstream wealth and status, the war remains strongly with them, marking them and separating them, as war does with most who experience it.
In recent interviews, Kentes, 59, Jordan, 61, and Funk, 65, said the war is a vital part of who they are. It helped define them, they said, mostly for the better. It continues to do so as they mark this milestone, they said, and probably will forever.
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Mike Kentes was looking for the names of two buddies that chilly November weekend a quarter-century ago when he was photographed in his dark beret and camo jacket holding a red carnation reflected in the gleaming wall.