Adrian Weser, 42, carved his way through a milling crowd, lifting his voice above the patriotic songs and hoping for a break of fortune.
"Anybody here from Cuchi and Tay Ninh?" he shouted. "Any nurses?"
A young woman ahead of him turned around. "She recognized me!" Weser said in amazement afterwards. "With the beard and all, she recognized me."
Seventeen years ago, according to Weser, the nurse had pulled him off a hospital table in Vietnam and thrown herself on top of him to protect him from a sudden shell attack.
Weser, who now lives in Vineland, N.J., said he asked her that day why she'd risked her life for his and "she told me to just shut up." Yesterday afternoon, Weser said, "the only thing we could say to each other is 'I love you.' "
"I found her," he marveled. "I found the woman who saved my life."
Many of the Vietnam veterans who flooded Washington this weekend were looking for someone: a commanding officer, a fellow pilot, a friend they only knew by a nickname who, for all they knew, might have died in the war. Or anyone from their unit, just to shake hands and say, "Welcome home" or "good luck."
At the dedication of the new statue at the Vietnam memorial yesterday afternoon, they carried pieces of cardboard and hastily inscribed pieces of white paper, bearing the numbers or emblems of their units and dates of their service in Vietnam.
They approached total strangers with abandon, keyed in by a shoulder patch or an emblem on a jacket pocket, hoping for a reunion.
Ray Veader, a 39-year-old former medic from Boston, was looking for "a Lt. Murphy, or Duffy."
"Hey, when were you in the 196th?" he asked one vet in mid-afternoon. "'68-'69," came the quick answer. "Oh, I was there in '66-'67," said Veader, disappointed. "Go over there," urged the second vet, pointing. "There's a lot of people from the 196th."
If they didn't find the men in their unit, the veterans found others with whom to share a feeling of brotherhood. Toting beers, snapping photographs and ducking behind a giant bush near the memorial that served as an improvised bathroom, they reveled in a party atmosphere while waiting for ceremonies to begin. "It's like being in base camp," said Veader.
They promised to trade newsletters, joked about commanding officers and avoided philosophical discussions of the war.
"We're kind of done with the fighting," said Mary Beth Sefton of Falls Church, who worked as a hospital nurse in Vietnam in 1970. "It's beyond politics now."
"Today it's all good feelings," said David Burton, a vet from Phoenix. "I've finally slain my own dragon about Vietnam."
For many like Dennis Cox, it was a day of unabashed pride, highlighted by a surprise speech by retired general William Westmoreland, former commander of U.S. ground troops in Vietnam. Westmoreland yielded to calls of "Speech! Speech!" from the veterans at morning ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.
Westmoreland told them the Vietnam conflict was "one of the most complicated and controversial wars" in American history, and said: "You did the job your country asked you to. You did magnificently and nobody could have done it better."
Cox was among those who besieged the former general with requests for an autograph after his remarks.
"We're proud of what we done," said the 35-year-old vet from Chicago, lifting his head slightly. "We're very proud . . . We stood behind the curtains for too long."
Ken Montgomery, who came from Daytona Beach, Fla., in his combat fatigues, said a few strangers approached him in his hotel and on the street and said things like: "Thank you" and "I'm glad you boys are in town."
"It feels good," said Montgomery.
Few could see President Reagan or any of the other speakers during the ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial . Before he spoke, a fair number of those who had come left, complaining of the crowds.
Half a dozen children and an adult or two perched like peacocks in the trees for a better view. Some vets complained they couldn't even hear Reagan.
That didn't bother John Blair, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "No more Vietnams." Unlike many others there, he was eager to talk politics.
"Revolutions don't have to be snuffed off with the military," he said. "I'm afraid we're going to make the same mistake down south in Central America ."
The new statue called "Three Fightingmen" and the wall with the names of those who died in the war were closed off during the ceremony, to the distress of some veterans. "It's our wall," said one angrily.
But when the speeches ended, and the sun had gone down, a thick, quiet crowd gathered again around the wall and the statue, reaching out to touch the names and the figures.
Richard James, 38, spent six to eight hours at the wall Friday. He headed for it as soon as he arrived in town from Minnesota. "I was afraid of how I would react," he said, "but I didn't break down. I had tears, but I didn't break down. I guess that's good."
He had one moment of shock when, scanning the wall for three friends' names, he found the name Richard L. James inscribed. "It sent chills down my spine," said James, whose middle initial is P.
After the ceremonies, 12 companions from the the Army's 25th division stood together in a silent vigil in front of the wall.
"It was like the wall was alive," said David Burton. "I could touch it and it was warm and I saw my reflection in it. I was among them, looking out."
The veterans stood at attention and touched the division's red and gold flag as it was passed around. One called out "I love you, 25th" and burst into sobs.