Bill Torro reached high and wiped the face of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with a yellow rose. The rivulets of rainwater that poured down the black marble wall like streaks of tears parted long enough to reveal a name: Robert A. Pitts.
He was Torro's buddy from the 1st Infantry Division, killed in Vietnam by an enemy rocket in September 1969.
Torro gently placed the rose on the ground at the base of the panel and turned away. "I always said he took my rocket," Torro said, choking up at the memory.
Torro, from Long Island, N.Y., was one of thousands of veterans who turned out on Veterans Day for a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Wall. Dedicated on Veterans Day 1982, the Wall has become not only the most visited memorial in Washington, but also an engine for repairing the deep divides left in the United States by the Vietnam War.
"It's been a place of healing, a place of reconciliation, a place to remember those who gave their all," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a keynote address. As a young Air Force pilot, Myers flew F-4 combat missions over Vietnam.
The memorial -- "this powerful Wall," as one speaker called it -- retains its power to evoke strong emotions, as evidenced by the flood of personal letters, photographs and gifts left in the rain at the Wall's base.
There were tiny shoes in a wooden frame under a panel bearing the name of Timothy G. Robinson, killed in action April 19, 1968. "The baby shoes he never got to tie," said a note attached to the box with blue and pink ribbons.
Farther down, beneath another panel, was a letter to William R. Stocks from his heartbroken mother. "As I wrote and thought about you, I had this deep hurt and this longing to once again see you," she said. "And then I wondered if I could have you back for just one day, which day would I choose?"
Other gifts left stories untold. An empty bottle of Remy Martin Grand Cru cognac. An LP of the Temptations' greatest hits. Photographs of smiling young men.
Before the ceremony, many veterans paced the walkway in front of the Wall, searching for familiar names, but Rob Coughlin stood back. Though he lives in Maryland, it was only in 1995 that he screwed up the courage to go to the Wall for the first time.
"I made the mistake of going by myself, and I swore then I'd never let anyone come alone," said Coughlin, 55, a native of Wheaton who now lives in Baltimore. "My best friend died in my arms. I was able to find him right off the bat."
In all, the Wall's marble face bears the names of 71 men he knew who were killed while serving with the 5th Marine Regiment in the Que Son Basin in 1965 and 1966. Coughlin didn't need to read their names to remember them all.
By the time the official ceremony began in the afternoon, the skies had dried and the maples and other trees around the memorial were still holding their late fall color. Color guards from military units across the country stood with flags atop the grassy knoll from which the Wall drops.
On a stage built in front of the Wall, speakers saluted the veterans for their service in a war that was not popular at home and that ended with all of Vietnam under communist rule after the last U.S. combat troops were withdrawn in 1973.
"Nothing will ever diminish one iota the contribution of these brothers and sisters," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who served with the Navy as a swift boat officer in the Mekong Delta.
"We mark 20 years of the Wall determined to set the record straight: In 10 years, American soldiers never lost a battle that made a difference," Kerry added, earning rousing cheers from the veterans.
Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a Vietnam veteran who delivered the closing prayer at the Wall's dedication 20 years ago, performed a similar role yesterday. "This Wall helped us begin the process of remembering and therefore the process of healing," he said.
Earlier in the day, prior to laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery, President Bush made an unannounced visit to the Wall. "Thank you for your service," Bush told veterans he encountered. He placed a U.S. flag and a presidential coin at the corner where the two faces of the memorial meet.
Yesterday's ceremony at the Wall culminated six days of observances marking the memorial's anniversary. About 2,000 volunteers, including veterans and family members, recited all 58,229 names etched on the memorial, a process that took some 65 hours beginning Thursday and ending Sunday.
Yesterday's observances began with a "March to Remember" down Constitution Avenue to the memorial. Hundreds of veterans, some in wheelchairs, some in uniform, moved in a steady downpour from a gathering point along the Mall. The rain did nothing to dissuade the veterans, who laughed and cheered at occasional peals of thunder.
A boisterous contingent from the Army's Americal Division chanted jodies at the behest of John Matthews, a cigar-toting former sergeant walking at their side:
Standing tall and looking good
We ought to be in Hollywood
When the veterans arrived at the Wall, a more somber mood prevailed.
Paul Huff, of Midlothian, Md., was making his first visit. "I felt guilty for being alive," said Huff, rain dripping off his black beret and wire-rim glasses. "I had a feeling I'd be better off on the Wall."
He found the name of Alonzo Lewis, a friend who was killed by rocket fire. "This man gave all," Huff said. "The ones here today gave some."
Nearby, Monte Wolff, a lawyer from Washington state who had been a company commander with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade, ignored the rain and knelt on the ground to make pencil rubbings of the names of several officers he knew. They were killed in 1967 when a helicopter he had been in minutes before was shot down near Chu Lai.
He shook with emotion as he described what the damp pieces of paper in his hand bearing their names meant. "What this represents is that whole generation," he said. "They just did it."