The nation's Vietnam War memorials help vet revisit a past he tried to bury

Michael Walsh spent 40 years trying to forget Vietnam. Now, embarking on a journey that is spanning hundreds of cities and all 50 states, the retired teacher from Germantown, Md., is finally ready to remember.
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010

When he came home in 1967, he gathered everything from that time -- clothing, photographs, letters to his mother that she had carefully saved -- and he threw it all out. He set out to forget.

But as he got older, he wondered how much he had really moved on. He began to think that the path to healing might lie not in forgetting but in a meandering journey through all 50 states, visiting hundreds of memorials dedicated to those who had died and to those who had lived only to face other hells back home. Forty-two years after Michael Walsh came home from Vietnam, he set out on a journey to remember.

* * *

It's raining in Pittsburgh. The courtyard is quiet and green. Walsh stands in front of a granite and steel structure and runs his fingers over a damp slab engraved with names. He always looks for familiar ones. Today his hands pause at Jeffrey M. Walsh. No relation to his own Germantown clan, Michael Walsh tells his friend Steve Campanella. It doesn't matter, though. They are all brothers.

Eighteen months into his memorial project, Walsh, 62, a former schoolteacher, has been to 27 states and nearly a hundred memorials. He photographs them all, posting entries to his blog, After Pittsburgh, he and Campanella, whom Walsh has known since kindergarten and who also served in Vietnam, will head to Indiana and West Virginia before looping home to Maryland, guided by a GPS they have named Thomasina.

The steel on this memorial represents Pittsburgh, Walsh says, and the metal's triangular shape represents the city's three rivers. The double zeros signify infinity -- a promise to never forget. Walsh has pieced this information together through Web research, a consuming pastime that occupies up to 10 hours a day.

Here in the courtyard there are no plaques explaining the monument's symbolism. "That's why I have to do this," he says, because so many memorials are dedicated, then lost. "This has become a responsibility for me. What I'm doing is only a small piece of something, but it's a beginning."

Some memorials are grand, like the soaring chapel in New Mexico, built on land planned for a resort until the landowners' son was killed. Some are nothing more than tiny headstones on forgotten plots, like the shrubbery-covered monument he'll later visit in the park in a Pittsburgh suburb.

At a Michigan memorial, Walsh saw a man pour a beer on the ground and explain that he was giving his brother "a drink," honoring a friend who had died from complications with Agent Orange. The man took Walsh to see a Vietnam-era Jeep covered with the signatures of thousands of vets. Walsh signed it twice, once for himself and once for Campanella, who hadn't been able to come along.

'I learned to shut up about it'

Walsh's story is a template of many soldiers' experiences, though he is careful to say that he speaks only for himself. He grew up in Silver Spring, was educated by nuns at St. John the Evangelist. Just out of high school, in 1966, he was drafted into the Army. He worked as a boat operator, and he saw things. The aftermath of a napalm attack: "It looks like you melt," he says. "Faces gone, noses gone, limbs gone, but still alive." Previously ambivalent about the war, he became convinced that it shouldn't be happening.

The day he left Vietnam, a year after arriving, his base camp was overrun; five guys he'd lunched with on Tuesday were, by Wednesday, dead. He came home and learned that the girl he'd been waiting for had not been waiting for him. He would walk down the street in uniform, and feel disgust emanating from passersby. "Baby killer," a woman muttered.

"So I learned to shut up about it," he says. To forget.

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