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

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; C01

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, MichaelFWalsh.blogspot.com. 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.

He used the GI Bill for college, then became a teacher, eventually settling at a school for emotionally disturbed children and specializing in conflict resolution. On the way he met a fellow educator named Mary Stafford, and together they raised Walsh's son from a previous marriage.

Though he told himself the war hadn't badly affected him, there were signs that he hadn't left the experience behind. For decades, the briefest whiff of diesel would send him back to his boat in Vietnam. When it came time for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, Stafford had to drag him to the Mall.

That was a turning point.

As they were walking toward the granite wall, a young man pulled up in his car, and asked Walsh if he was a veteran. When Walsh responded, cautiously, that he was, the man insisted on giving him a ride, thanking him for his service the whole way. It was the first time that Walsh could remember being thanked.

And at the Wall, Walsh was overcome by its power, the symbolic work that had gone into it. For as isolated as he'd felt, the presence of the memorial showed that thousands of people cared. "Somebody had to plan this," he says. "Somebody had to fundraise. Somebody had to find the space."

He began to wonder how many other memorials were out there. He believed that other veterans would find solace in how much care had gone into the designing of each one. He decided that, as soon as he no longer had the constraints of a full-time job, he would be the one to tell them.

Shortly after his 2009 retirement, Walsh went with Stafford on a business trip to Mississippi. She left for work, then called a few minutes later. "The state memorial is three miles from the hotel," she told him. Start the project now.

He drove there in the morning fog, to the stone pavilion in Biloxi. On each wall were etched renderings of the faces of fallen soldiers. He sat for hours. He came back the next day. And the next.

"I think this has been really important to his healing," says Stafford, who comes on the trips when she can.

Stafford "tells me on a regular basis that I am supposed to be doing this, that there are forces that I don't understand," Walsh says. He's not a superstitious person, but he will admit that he has thought, more than once, that she is right. At each destination Walsh visits, he finds new signs of care -- as at the Vietnam memorial in Kentucky, a massive sundial inscribed with the names of all 1,100 Kentuckians who died in service. The names are carefully placed so that the sundial's shadow touches each on the anniversary of the soldier's death. In North Carolina, Walsh and Campanella noticed that the statues of the soldiers had their dog tags looped through their shoelaces instead of around their necks. Soldiers did that to make their bodies identifiable in case they were shot in the chest. In Ohio, Campanella found a name that was more than familiar -- a soldier he had befriended in Vietnam, a soldier he watched die.

New memorials are dedicated every year, making a current catalogue nearly impossible. Others have tried -- a veteran in Texas named Albert Nahas recently self-published "Warriors Remembered," his own photographic story of 85 memorials.

"We tried to do things like that a while back," says John Rowan, president of the nonprofit Vietnam Veterans of America. "We've compiled information, asked people to send things into us. But it's far from comprehensive."

Walsh hopes that one day he might compile his experiences into his own book, but says that the readers he cares most about are his fellow soldiers, who might take comfort in it: "At some point in our history all we had was each other, because we were the losers, and we were the 'baby killers.' We were each other's only sustenance."

A shared road

It's late afternoon in Pittsburgh. Thomasina is being petulant; Walsh and Campanella have been driving up and down the same stretch for 20 minutes in search of another memorial. Campanella is talking about trying to locate the daughter of the man from the Ohio memorial. "There is a woman out there," he says. "And I was the last one to see her father alive."

This project has had a miraculous way, Walsh says, of bringing people in his life together, bringing him closer to his universal brothers, but also to Campanella.

The two men hadn't been in close contact in years when Walsh phoned Campanella and asked whether he might like to come along on some of the trips, to witness how others had honored their service.

"Do you remember what you said?" Walsh asks.

"There was never a minute I wasn't interested," says Campanella.

"He said," Walsh remembers, " 'You're going to help an old vet heal.' "

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