The retired major general had come up from Fort Bragg in North Carolina to face a wall on the Mall yesterday, but not the Vietnam Memorial. Gathered in front of him were men he had led into Vietnam, and whose experiences had left a barrier between them and their officers that has stood for the past 15 years.
The time was Feb. 13, 1968. Without notice, President Johnson had ordered 5,700 men from the elite 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Paratroopers to pack and fly: Destination, Bien Hoa, Republic of Vietnam.
It was not so much that the men had not been told where they were going when 168 C141s began their flight from Fayetteville. After all, their backpacks contained jungle fatigues, insect repellent and mosquito nets.
The problems began when they returned home, more than a year later and 213 men short, to find their experiences discounted. In a result that was more subtle than being spat upon by antiwar protesters, they felt that their commanders, unable to understand the complexities of jungle fighting, regarded them as losers. When members of the 3rd Brigade held their first reunion in 1982, none of the brass from Fort Bragg showed up.
That all changed yesterday, when the brass showed up for ceremonies honoring the fighting men of the 82nd Airborne Division. The event, which coincided with other Veterans Day activities, was organized as a show of solidarity, but it became a time for reconciliation.
"I'm hoping that this day brings us closer together," said retired Maj. Gen. Alexander Bolling to about two dozen of his men. "I hope this will begin to mend the rift between the men who retired, the public and the Army at that time."
As for missing the brigade's reunion two years ago, Bolling said: "It was an oversight on the part of the division. I have taken the appropriate steps to make sure that it won't happen again."
The wall of men who confronted Bolling shuffled restlessly, some dressed in camouflage uniforms and T-shirts bearing the image of winged skulls capped with combat berets. Others, dressed in suits and ties, beamed proudly.
Of all the combat divisions that fought in Vietnam, discontent within the 82nd Airborne seemed the most unlikely. Called the "All American" division, it was the camp ground of Sgt. Alvin York, whose World War I exploits won him the Medal of Honor.
The 3rd Brigade, called the "Golden Brigade," is among the first of the fighting units sent into major conflicts: North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Holland, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Grenada and, during the civil unrest in Detroit in 1967.
The older veterans are fiercely proud of their tradition, and the behavior of the men returning from Vietnam, scraggly in appearance and acting antisocial, confused them. This weekend was the first time since the Vietnam War ended that the so-called "Superstars" of World War II and the Vietnam veterans could be seen commingling, slowly thawing the ice that had formed between them.
At the Executive House hotel near General Scott Circle on Friday night, the two groups crammed inside a hospitality suite. Although they rarely engaged in lengthy conversation with one another, they could not help overhearing each other talk. After a few scotches and beers, some minds began to change.
"When you think about it, those guys had a very different war to fight," said Jim Rodier of Virginia, who had served in the 82nd during World War II. "We had roads and meadows and we knew who the enemy was because they wore gray uniforms. These guys fought in a jungle, and sometimes the enemy wore black pajamas and sometimes they didn't."
When Rodier said that he could not understand why the Vietnam veterans wore camouflage uniforms, John Treeman, a Vietnam vet from St. Petersburg, Fla., explained: "The World War II guys came home as a group of heroes. We came back as individuals. The jungle fighting uniform is symbolic of our unity. A lot of guys were ashamed to say they had been to Vietnam. Now, like the Gay Liberation Movement, we can come out of the closet."
After two years of reconciliation with the American public, which has seen more than a million visitors make a trek to the Wall, the time apparently had come to work on the rift within the ranks of fighting men themselves. The extent of the division was highlighted during preparations for yesterday's activities when Hilton Green, a D.C. Vietnam veteran, told his father, Hilton Green Sr., that Vietnam was different because men had been sprayed with defoliants.
"In World War I," the elder Green shot back. "Men were sprayed with poison gas and they aren't around to talk about it."
Put down as "whiners" by some who fought in World War II, and at times called "insubordinate" by their senior commanders, many Vietnam veterans said that after the war they had nobody to turn to but each other. Since the war ended, some veterans said, many of their friends have committed suicide, become involved in drugs or joined the ranks of street people.
At yesterday's ceremony, in which a wreath was laid to commemorate the first of the 213 3rd Brigade members to die in Vietnam, General Bolling assured the men that they were the best he had ever fought with.
Another retired general, George Dickerson, told them that their recognition was "long overdue."
"You can be very proud of serving your country," he said.
David Stits from Riverside, Calif., one of the organizers of the event, had prepared a blistering speech criticizing the generals for ignoring their troops. As the senior officers spoke, he speculated in an aside to a fellow veteran that the only reason the generals had come to Washington was "publicity," since the cause of the Vietnam veterans appears to be gaining popularity.
"When we came back, we were not welcomed by the old guys," Stits said. "Now we are the old guys, and we must ban together and help ourselves."
But Bolling and Dickerson already had invited them back into the fold. After discussing his prepared speech with Richard O'Hare, another organizer of the event, Stits opted for diplomacy and decided not to give the speech.
"I decided to keep it to myself," he said.
As Taps sounded in the background, it seemed that yet another war was being laid to rest.