58,267 names are etched in a granite black surface. This reflective surface makes you feel like you are part of the wall. “(…) it lets you know where you are. and almost like a welcome. join me!! again. it makes it more alive. and really had to be the dark color. strange how you get to see what you look like as you experience it. but also those around you.” Robert Tolhurst was a medic in the Army during the Vietnam War. He rose to the rank of Specialist 4 by the time he came back to the United States. At first he never wanted to go and see the wall, but was glad that he did afterwards.
I met Robert two years ago when I lived in Syracuse, NY. Since I have moved to the Washington area I have kept an e-mail correspondence with him. All of these quotes are from Robert over an e-mail conversation for the past two months. During these two years of knowing him, I had no idea that purely by chance I would have found out his life story and the events he witnessed first hand in Vietnam.
This hallowed piece of ground has many different meanings to people, whether it is a veteran that served in Vietnam or a tourist. For Robert this reminds him of all the events that happened to him over his tour of duty. This is what he had to say;
“it was making friends with fellow Americans that I would never have had the chance to coming from a small town. people from all over the country. it’s finding out that coming together in a war situation makes a lot of people drop their prejudices and preconceived ideas. and form lasting friends ships that last all your lives(…)
it’s meeting a Vietnamese for the first time. and finding out how kind and gentle and sharing they are. even as poor as they were. remembering the village elders asking us to give all the gifts from home to them to distribute to the kids. because family respect for elders was so important . that our giving the gifts would make the parents look bad. its having fresh fruit right off the tree. and never liking a store banana or pineapple as much ever after. its the incredible colors of the tropics. meeting 10 year old kids who had lost both parents to the war and had already killed someone. it’s the saddest Christmas you ever spent. away from family. and the tons of home made cookies. and enjoying every single letter from home no matter how short of the content.
it’s treating a combat soldier to some rest and recovery and have to send him back to the front line because he was exploding grenades. the front line had affected him so much that he couldn’t function normally. and knowing that the country and military would give him little or no help with this when he was discharged. it was dealing with plague and rabies and poisonous sea snakes. and having 3 hours at a make shift hut village outside of San Antonio as the army's only way of acclimating you to going to a jungle combat zone. it was having the guy in the next bunk to me have his throat slit going to the latrine the 1st night in Saigon(…) it’s shutting off burning the outdoor outhouses for a day because a general was flying over. like the smell would reach him. it was seeing Raquel Welch up close and almost personal.”
“It was very brave people who did incredible things that probably only a war situation could bring out.”
“It's hate, it’s love, and it’s sorrow. It’s leaving a part of yourself with the memory of someone you shared life with.”
“You just want to go up and touch it. And move your hand down along it. No I wouldn’t change it. It fits modern times. It gives a good contrast. And its simple. Not overcomplicated."
“Its like a pilgrimage. Whether its Mecca or Lourdes. For some it was their only way to say goodbye. To have closure.”
“Its being so freaking scared that you don’t think you'll see the next sunrise.”