The same words echoed again and again amid the speeches and the patriotic music and the prayers of the annual Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington Cemetery yesterday: "Who were you with? When were you there?"
Larry Moss, who was drafted and sent to Vietnam when he was 23, climbed on the high stone wall that rings the amphitheater so he could see the speakers and the crowd of nearly 6,000, and there met Lem Genovese, who wore a green beret and greeted him: "Who were you with? When were you there?"
"The 25th Infantry Division, 1967," said Moss, 39, who now lives in Ferriday, La. "What about you?"
"U.S. Army First Aviation Brigade, 1971-72," answered Genovese, of San Francisco. "1967! You had the big sweep, man!"
The two veterans stood next to each other and felt the wind blow cold against their backs and saw the American flags waving and heard Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger declare: "At this year's Veterans Day our nation recalls in a special way the veterans of a painful war that we tried to forget.
" . . . There are few memories more painful than those associated with the Vietnam War; yet there can be nothing more important to the heart of America than that we always remember those who sacrificed so much for our country in that conflict."
Genovese and Moss cheered and clapped along with the crowd as Weinberger added: "But we also learned a terrible lesson from the Vietnam War -- a lesson we must never forget. We learned that we should never again ask our men and women to serve in a war which we do not intend to win."
"Goddamn, we've grown up as a country at last," Genovese yelled. "All right, Cap! What a speech!"
"If that doesn't bring tears to your eyes," said Moss.
This was their Veterans Day, more than a decade overdue for Larry Moss and Lem Genovese and thousands of others.
Although the traditional Veterans Day ceremony honors those who have fought in every American war, this year it had a special meaning for the men and women who went to Vietnam and came home to find a country divided and in no mood for honoring the veterans of its longest war.
It looked like a pilgrimage as the veterans and their families and their friends walked over Memorial Bridge and up the long path that winds among the rows and rows of white gravestones to the amphitheater and, just before it, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where Weinberger laid a ceremonial wreath.
Some came in battle fatigues, others in jackets that said "Hearts and Minds," and "Vietnam Veterans of America," Agent Orange T-shirts with skulls on the back, in full uniform with medals pinned across the chest.
Too many came in wheelchairs, among them a double amputee with a bumper sticker taped to the back of his wheelchair: "I'm a Vietnam veteran and I'm damned proud of myself!"
The speakers included Ronald Ray, the national president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and Everett Alvarez Jr., deputy administrator of Veterans Affairs, who spent 8 1/2 years -- longer than any other American -- as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. What he learned, Alvarez said yesterday, was this: "A man's life loses most of its meaning if he is not free, and if he must fight halfway around the earth to preserve that freedom, he best do it!"
The loudest and longest ovation was given to a man who wasn't even seated on the speakers' dais. It was for Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the man behind this week-long tribute to Vietnam veterans, the man who conceived the idea of a memorial bearing the names of the 57,939 Americans killed or missing in Vietnam. As the crowd clapped its gratitude, Scruggs stood in the visitors' section and smiled.
Moss' moment came during the benediction, given by Simeon Kobrinetz, deputy director of the Veterans Administration's chaplain service. From the 23rd Psalm: "Yea, tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me."
Softly, Moss said the psalm along with the chaplain. "We were escorting convoys through the jungle," he recalled. "Sometimes they were late, and you'd radio back, 'Is the convoy coming? Is the convoy coming?' It was so terrifying running those roads at night . . . I was scared to death, and I'd be saying, 'Yea, tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for Thou art with me; Yea, tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for Thou art with me, Yea, tho I . . . . ' "
The U.S. Marine Band played the traditional patriotic songs yesterday -- the national anthem, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "America the Beautiful." It closed with John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," and as Moss and Genovese jumped down from the wall, an old man standing nearby cried.
He was Virgil Bowers, 75, a World War II veteran. What tore him up was not sadness for the dead but a long-burning rage. "This Vietnam war was a disaster," he said. "It just makes me so angry that we got in a war we didn't intend to win. We could have won it in a month . . . "
Moss walked down the path out of the cemetery, back again past the rows and rows of white markers, which seemed nestled in the fallen leaves. "It was all very moving," he said but added, in a bitter echo of Bowers' sentiment: "I will never forgive the government for what they did to us."
Across the Memorial Bridge, at the new Vietnam Veterans memorial, other veterans and their families and friends gathered throughout the day, searching for the names of the dead and finding each other.
In front of Panel 16 of the long black granite wall, one veteran said to another, "I can't talk to other people about it. They don't understand. To understand, you have to get the smells, the sights, the feelings."
To which Green Beret Al Allison, who understood, replied: "You have to smell fresh blood and gunpowder to understand."
Few people stood alone for very long before the memorial, before which lay long-stemmed red roses and paper flags made by children.
Mothers embraced the comrades of their dead sons, comrades embraced comrades, strangers spoke.
A tall red-haired man in a navy sweatshirt saw Allison's green beret and his uniform and approached: "Your face looks familiar . . .
"Who were you with, when were you there?"