At first, it appeared to be a typical family gathering after the funeral of a loved one. Friends and family stood around sharing memories of the deceased, their conversation punctuated often by laughter and tears.
But yesterday's meeting, near the apex of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was something different. The deceased died 20 years ago, and the people who mourned him knew little about each other.
Joe Rufty was killed in Vietnam, and yesterday his parents, Archie and Frances Rufty, joined veterans who had served with Rufty in laying a wreath near Rufty's name on the wall. It was the first time the Ruftys, who live in Las Vegas, had visited the Vietnam memorial.
The gathering was initiated by Bob Evans, a veteran who served with Rufty in Vietnam. They met on Christmas Day in 1969. "It was a real good day -- the best day I spent in Vietnam," Evans said, recalling how they shared a package Rufty's wife had sent him. Evans had known Rufty for barely a month when he heard over the field radio that his friend had been killed. Nine days later, Evans was wounded.
Evans, who lives in McLean, started several letters to the Rufty family, but never sent them. "My words seemed so hollow and empty," he said. "I felt like I didn't have any words to offer that wouldn't cause them more pain."
Several months ago, Evans found his friend's relatives through a new computerized service offered by the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The program, called In Touch, connects relatives of dead veterans with strangers -- veterans, people who wore POW bracelets -- whose lives were profoundly affected by the Vietnam War.
"We need to let the families know that their son or daughter is remembered, and that people still care," said John Holman, executive director of the volunteer organization and a Vietnam veteran. "And for the parents," he added, "it is comforting to know that their son or daughter lives on in the lives of others."
The Ruftys, both retired lawyers from Salisbury, N.C., said they were overjoyed when Evans called them. The government account of their son's death had been sketchy, but through Evans the family was able to learn the "minute details" of their son's death.
One of the things they learned was that all 37 men from Evans's platoon had offered, despite the dangers, to try to rescue Rufty after they heard he had been shot in the chest.
In Touch began its computerized service Memorial Day weekend, when volunteers pitched a tent near the memorial and collected hundreds of applications from people seeking information about veterans and their families. The organization now has about 1,000 names in its computer and has made more than 10 matches, according to the program's coordinator, Wanda Ruffin. The meeting between the Rufty family and Bob Evans was the first face-to-face meeting the group has arranged. Ruffin emphasized that the program leaves it up to the family whether to meet the veterans.
For Sam Morton from Vienna, who had gone through officer training camp with Rufty, seeing the memorial brought a sense of resolution. "I never thought I had 'post-Vietnam syndrome,' " he said. "But I avoided coming to the wall. It's very healing to say, 'yeah, it's over and done with, but it wasn't a waste.' "