By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Thousands of graying Vietnam veterans, many clad in jungle boots and old fatigues, marched down Constitution Avenue yesterday to mark the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and to pay tribute to the more than 58,000 war dead enshrined on the Wall.
Their numbers thinned by age, their marching cadence uneven, the men and women who served in the war paraded to the rousing music of Sousa and the calls of "Thank you!" and "Welcome home!" and "Hoo-Ah!" from the crowds lining the sidewalk.
They came from across the country and from all lines of work, many now retired. And they carried flags and banners or wore jackets and T-shirts proclaiming where and when they had served. The names of such battles as Khe Sanh and Ia Drang, once places of death and horror, were emblazoned on signs and jackets. And many marchers sported the insignia of their old division: the Americal's white stars on a blue field, or the 1st Cavalry's black horse's head on a yellow shield.
There were marchers who had been soldiers, Marines, medics, nurses, Red Cross volunteers, airmen who handled fierce attack dogs, sailors who manned heavily armed harbor patrol boats and simple "grunts."
There was also a large contingent of graying South Vietnamese army veterans, who had survived terrible battles and marched in jaunty berets with their distinctive yellow flag with three red stripes.
Amid damp and overcast weather, the parade stepped off at 11:15 a.m., moved west on Constitution Avenue to the calls of "Forward, march!" and ended at 18th Street about 1:30 p.m.
Along the way, the marchers waved to the crowds, smoked cigars, laughed, hugged and, more than three decades after the close of the war, wept over the memory of those named on the Wall.
Hundreds walked the few blocks to the Wall when the parade ended to listen to a reading of the names or to touch the name of a comrade engraved in the stone. The site was thronged late into the afternoon, and here and there a veteran could be seen caressing the black surface or simply overcome with emotion.
A formal rededication ceremony is scheduled for 1 p.m. today, with former secretary of state and Vietnam veteran Colin L. Powell as the keynote speaker.
There were many canes and limps and wheelchairs among those who paraded yesterday. The same was true when the Wall was dedicated in 1982, just seven years after the war ended.
A polished black granite chevron set into the earth near the Lincoln Memorial, the memorial was built with money raised by the Washington-based Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, co-founded and headed by Jan C. Scruggs of Bowie.
Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran who had been wounded in battle, came up with the idea in 1979 and with a team of other veterans raised $8.4 million for the project in three years.
The Wall was designed by architect Maya Lin and bears names of those killed or missing during the war. It was dedicated Nov. 13, 1982, with ceremonies and an emotional parade of tens of thousands of veterans from across the country.
There were initially 57,939 names inscribed on the memorial. But 317 names have been added for various reasons, and the total now is 58,256, according to the memorial fund.
The dedication marked a time of healing and a sense among Vietnam veterans that they were at last being thanked for their service. "It's corny and a cliche that there were no parades" when veterans returned from Vietnam, historian and Vietnam veteran Marc Leepson said recently. "But there were no parades."
In the past 25 years, the Wall has become one of the most visited memorials in Washington.
"The wall has matured, as have veterans," Scruggs, the parade's grand marshal, said yesterday.
Jack G. Devine, vice president of Vietnam Veterans of America and the parade's chief sponsor, said: "We're getting older. Most of us are retiring. But when we look back over the 25 years since this dedication, we see that we've accomplished a great deal.
"I think that the greatest accomplishment is that we have bonded as brothers and sisters, and supported each other through this whole time," he said.
There was still a sense of that yesterday.
During ceremonies before the parade, Elizabeth Starrenburg of Augusta, Ga., who was wearing a 1st Cavalry lapel pin, approached Edward Times of Baton Rouge, who was wearing a jacket with the division patch and "Ia Drang" embroidered on the back.
Perhaps, she said, Times had known her first husband, Glenn A. Kennedy, who had fought in the battle and had been killed later in the war. Times, 64, said he thought he might have. They embraced. Starrenburg said whenever she sees a 1st Cavalry patch, "It draws me."
Nearby stood Russell Adams, 66, of Leesport, Pa., who was shot in the head during the Ia Drang battle and has been disabled on his right side ever since.
He'd been a machine gunner and now worked as a farmer. He wore a black glove on his right hand and took off his white hat during a patriotic song.
Adams said he is at peace with his wounds. No matter what happens in life, he said, "you've got to deal with it."
He'd been driven to the parade by a friend and said it felt good to be there. "It's good to be alive," he said.
James Stewart, 61, an optometrist from Montrose, Mich., carried the red flag with a black dog's head he had made to denote those who were Air Force dog handlers. He served in Vietnam in 1967 and '68 and handled a German shepherd that had been trained to kill. "They were a weapon, just like shooting a gun," he said.
He said there had long been a misperception of the Vietnam veteran as a misfit. "The majority of us came back, got on with our life," he said. Vietnam veterans are "doctors. they're lawyers. They're investment counselors. They're all kinds of stuff."
As the parade got underway, Marine Corps veteran Walt Henriksen, 59, of Binghamton, N.Y., set out on his motorized wheelchair with his grandson, Walter Beers, 8, on board.
Henriksen was wounded near Khe San in April 1969. "Friendly fire," he said, an errant mortar round. He can move his legs, he said, but has no feeling in them.
He said he attended the dedication 25 years ago. Since then, "I think people have made up to us [for] a lot of the bad things that happened when the war first started," he said. "People are much more aware of the Vietnam veterans and their plight."
Asked if he had any regrets, he paused.
"Yeah, I guess I do," he said. "But I would go again."
Staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this report.