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Link to the Past: A Vietnam Story
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 1999

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Nearly everyone who visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial feels the power, the force that springs from collective remembrance. There is silence at the Wall and reverence and gratitude for those who died. You know that behind each of the carved names there is a story and a family left behind.

There are several "Virtual Walls"-- and other Vietnam memorial spots--on the Internet. On these sites you can search for the names of Americans killed in the war, read service records, learn the stories of their families and add your memories, prayers and good wishes. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Virtual Wall, No Quarter and The Virtual Wall, among others, offer different services. But each gives you a sense of the Wall's power. Here, as Memorial Day approaches, are some warm applications for a cold technology.

Jennifer Branch Denard understands the power of the Wall and of the Web. This is her story:

Jen is an only child.

Her father, Capt. William A. Branch, was killed in Vietnam on June 6, 1970, at the age of 28. He was in a plane that went down, survived the crash, but died in the jungle near a Michelin rubber plantation in the province of Binh Duong.

Jen was 2.

While growing up, she read what she could about the Vietnam War. She saw the movies. "It was all negative."

Her mother, she says, didn't talk much about Bill. The two women often cried and simply hugged each other. "I thought Mom was embarrassed by him or that she was ashamed," says Denard, an elementary school teacher in St. Petersburg, Fla., "but she was just incredibly sad.

"I didn't ask about him."

Denard possessed an unquenchable thirst to know her father. She sifted through his belongings, stored in footlockers in the attic--his medals, his pipes, his paintbrushes. She dreamed of marrying, and of knowing enough about her father to tell her children stories of his life. "I wanted to pass him on."

On the Internet, she discovered Sons and Daughters in Touch, a site for the children of Vietnam soldiers. In the privacy of her room, using her computer, Denard found it easier to talk about her father and to ask questions. "I had never talked to anybody about my dad," she says, except for a few very close friends. Through the Web site, she found people who shared her pains and her pursuits.

Two years ago, about 300 sons and daughters gathered at the Wall in Washington for a Father's Day reunion. "I was just amazed," Denard says. "You think nobody understands how you feel. Then suddenly you're surrounded by people who know exactly what you're going through."

The kids cried, they laughed, they swapped stories, they exchanged addresses, they promised to keep up with each other. Someone persuaded Denard to create a home page devoted to her father--The Greatest Man I Never Knew.

Back home, as she began to piece the site together, she discovered, "I knew a lot more about him than I thought I knew."

She put her father's biography online. She posted photos. She discovered the Web site of the 25th Infantry Division Association. She signed the guest book and linked the site to her page.

"People started writing me," she says. Those who knew her father told her stories, sent pictures, helped her identify people in her father's photo album.

"The big break came when I found Kirk Ramsey," she says. Ramsey is a Vietnam historian who developed a way for veterans to find each other. Denard signed on for her father. She united with even more men who had known her dad. One man sends her a new story about her father every Friday.

Her knowledge of her father "just grew as men would tell me stuff." Ever more rapidly, the blurry vision of her father has come into sharper focus.

And, she says, "it was very healing to be able to talk about my dad with strangers. That's what they are. You get on the Internet, you don't know who they are. You open yourself up to complete strangers."

And strangers, she says, opened up to her. "Somehow it's easier for a veteran to talk with me over the Internet," she explains. "You don't have the face-to-face. If he cries, nobody knows."

Memorial Day is especially meaningful for Jen Denard. So are Father's Day and the Fourth of July. In fact, this Fourth she's going to march in a parade hosted by a Vietnam veteran who played poker with Bill Branch just a week before the plane crash. She found the man through the Internet.

Jen is 30. "I've outlived my father," she says, which is something she hadn't exactly planned on. "I lived my life pretty recklessly."

And why not? As far as she knew, good people died at 28.

Denard doesn't have any children yet, but she's hoping to. She's married. "Surprisingly," she laughs, "to a military guy."

To a pilot named John. Who flies search-and-rescue missions for the Coast Guard. The poignancy is not lost on her. When John was called out at Christmastime to find three fishermen lost at sea, she says, she didn't get angry. "I was happy. Because I knew that somewhere there were three women waiting for their men to come home."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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