Veterans Day easily takes over a week in the Antelope Valley. It is not Halloween, a time for costumes, treats and merriment. Nor is it Thanksgiving or Christmas. But like all of those, there are many opportunities for savings and sales. Unlike the other holidays, Veterans Day is less festive than a time for reflection and a little respect.
In recent years, Veterans Day has ended for me on the night of Nov. 11, after the bugler plays taps at the Antelope Valley Mobile Vietnam Memorial.
The AV Wall is the portable monument to Vietnam’s fallen heroes that is a half-size replica of the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. It has been displayed annually, for eight years at the Palmdale Amphitheater for thousands of visitors, and everything about it is a labor of love and symbol of the Antelope Valley’s bond with its servicemen and women.
As the notes of taps air soulfully from the bugler’s lips through brass, a few dozen people gather in the cool night air at the Palmdale Amphitheater. Sometimes they gather in very cold night air. They are veterans, mostly, and family, or dedicated volunteers. The crowd has shrunk from its many hundreds of people that circulated in daylight. The AV Wall is illuminated, with the glow of lamps bouncing off the 58,000-plus names of the Americans killed in Vietnam.
A dear friend who was drafted from civilian life, shipped to basic training away from his ‘56 Chevy and girlfriend, is one of the guiding spirits of presenting the AV Wall.
He was drafted into the Army during the closing years of the Vietnam War and transferred into the hard-fought 101st Airborne Division. As Billy Joel’s song “Parris Island” recounted, he and his friends were “sharp, as sharp as knives.” They fought for their own lives and their buddies’ lives.
A few more friends, brothers-in-arms who owned their own unsought share value of the Vietnam War gather around my friend and there is a brief toast. Then, he walks to the Wall, his wall of emotional support standing by behind him.
My friend puts his hand on the clutch of names of friends who were killed by an American artillery round that landed short on Christmas Eve, killing a score of them. One moment they were sitting in the depth of night in “triple canopy” jungle. The next moment they were gone forever. Nothing friendly about “friendly fire.” It’s fratricide.
The doomed troopers of Christmas Eve 1970, joined what would become the list of 58,000 names on that Wall. And their friend, who was a driving force in getting the Antelope Valley memorial wall built, leans into it, as if he might blend right into the list of names.
My friend gathers his emotions and his comrades decide together, that the weather has turned just right for whiskey.
In recent years, that has been the end of my Veterans Day rituals. This year was different. My day job is in a clinic, but the mixed crew of volunteers and veterans began dismantling the multi-paneled portable AV Wall early enough that I could put in an hour on the clean up before clocking in Tuesday, after the holiday.
The AV Wall’s volunteer coordinators are a blend of spiritual house mothers and sergeant majors. One was solicitous of my lower back pain, which was awarded to me by too many parachute landings. She asked me to box up everything placed at the base of the AV Wall. That is light duty. In the old outfit, we would call it “getting over.” This isn’t the detritus after the Tournament of Roses Parade. No trash piles up on the verdant green grass at the AV Wall’s base. I plucked from the Wall base nearly 100 small American flags, each tagged with the name of an American who went far away from home and came home under a flag, or was still listed MIA more than 40 years later.
Like the national Vietnam memorial, names on the AV Wall are engraved, so buddies, family members and well-wishers can make a pencil rubbing of the name, in respect and as a memento.
The great Vietnam War novelist and surviving grunt infantryman Tim O’Brien, titled one of his books “The Things They Carried.” On the morning after Veterans Day, it is the things they left behind that stops time for a moment.
One such rubbing, with accompanying data on an information sheet, was for Gene Operie Merriweather, killed near Quang Tri, on March 3, 1969, serving in the 3rd Marine Division. He was 21. My eye stops on PFC Merriweather’s flag and information sheet because my son fought with 3rd Marines in Iraq. Our minds make quick connections like that. Where were you? Who were you with? What did you carry? I lost my buddy there.
The things family members and buddies left behind were made of memory and love. Sprays of flowers leaned against the wall, wilting already, brief as life, then gone. Someone hand-painted a Vietnam Service Medal on a stone, as if to say, “I am too heavy to blow away in the wind.” Others left the slender bracelets, made with names of POW-MIA troops, and some in memory of the dead.
Whether it is the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial or one of its traveling tribute walls, people who come to gaze at the names are sometimes transformed. They leave things, and they take something away with them. It was a visit to Lancaster by one of the traveling Vietnam Wall tributes nearly 20 years ago that changed life direction for Gerry Rice, a Vietnam infantry grunt, a man who carried a lot of stuff on job sites, and also carried a load of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“For years I had been running away from my veteran status and I kept running into it, like a wall,” he said.
During his visit at the traveling Wall in Lancaster City Park (now Steve Owen Park), something hit him.
“I met guys like George Palermo and Mike Bertell and Glen Nester — guys a lot further along than I was. And I decided to be like them. I decided to embrace my veteran status.”
With a few good men and women, they became the core group of veteran volunteers that got the AV Wall built, a five-year effort, that has led to 10 years of success as an invitation to come together and heal the wounds of war, visible and not visible wounds of memory engraved on a wall.
Dennis Anderson was an Army paratrooper during the Cold War. As editor of the Valley Press, he embedded as a journalist in the Iraq War with National Guard from the Antelope Valley. He works on veteran and community mental health issues as a licensed clinical therapist with High Desert Medical Group.