In September 1989, I was a reporter with The Austin American-Statesman.
The mobile version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial came to nearby Round Rock.
The newspaper asked me to visit it and write about what I felt.
This is what I wrote, which I dedicated to my friend, Harry Conrad.
I've updated it, because I wanted Harry to know about my grandchildren, too.
by Bill Collier
It's unbelievable, Harry. It's just like the picture. You know the one I mean. There was a blue sky and little white puffy clouds. It was hot as hell, and there we stood in full battle gear in the middle of a field studded with sandbagged bunkers. We held our rifles. Ammunition, grenades, machetes and bayonets hung from our webbing. We looked young, strong and cocky. I get that picture out once in a while to show people what we looked like in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1966.
The sky and the heat are just the same. Even the field is almost the same, but there are no bunkers. Instead, at the top of a rise, there's a long, low, black wall inscribed with about 58,000 names, everybody in the U.S. Armed Forces who was killed or missing in the war. It's a mobile model of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, set up in Palm Valley Park outside Round Rock, Texas. The real one in Washington D.C. is twice as big, but even this one is impressive. You'd be proud to see it.
I found your name here, Harry. Panel 16 East, Line 76. Harry F. Conrad. For 22 years I've felt it best not to think about you, but I owed it to you to make sure your name was there.
I'm touching the letters. Can you feel it? It's like reconnecting an old, rusty circuit. From the mercifully distant recesses of my mind, I remember.......
March 14, 1967. Your platoon had a new lieutenant, Lt. Patterson's replacement, first day in the field. He made a rookie mistake. He had rubber life rafts dropped by helicopter at the canal, alerting the Viet Cong you were about to cross. Then he loaded you all in the rafts and set out without securing the opposite bank first. Not finding a good landing area there, he had all of you, jammed in like sardines, paddling the rafts down the narrow canal, lined with heavy nipa palm on both sides.
It was like shooting frogs in a rain barrel. It sounded like there were just two of them, one with a single-shot and one with an automatic. You and your buddies were too crowded to be able to shoot back. It was over in seconds dead, wounded, stragglers everywhere, all the weapons and gear lost in the murky water. I'll bet we got there in five minutes, but the Viet Cong were gone. All we could do was help the wounded out of the water and look for the gear and the bodies.
Yours was one of them. Three days later, you would have been 22. The green lieutenant survived, by the way. I thought you should know that. He was wounded, but not seriously. I don't even remember his name. He bought a ticket home after spending a single day in the field and making a single bad decision that wasted several lives. What a microcosm of everything wrong with that war.
If I could remember the names of the others who died that day, or all the others from our unit who died during the year-long tour of duty, I'd tell you, Harry, because you deserve to know. But I can't remember them. I guess it's my way of dealing with it.
Other guys remember like it was yesterday. I see some of their letters here, at the base of the wall, talking to their dead friends. "I've thought of you every day," one says. I guess that's his way of dealing with it.
I remember you, Harry, because we were both drafted out of the same area of New Jersey, went through training together, crossed the Pacific in the troop ship together.
We were reared on John Wayne and Audie Murphy and, even though we were plenty scared, we were ready to kick some ass because that's what our country has always done. It never occurred to us until far, far too late that our own generals and politicians had lied, had sent us into a no-win deal, and that to many viewers of this war movie, the one featuring you and I, we would come across as the heavies.
I don't know exactly how many were killed or wounded or sent home ill out of the original Bravo Company, Harry. Some of those who died were replacements you never met.
But the rest of us made it out. We're living the life you were denied. We got jobs, bought nice cars, raised families, lived in houses, cut the grass, cooked steaks on grills out back and watched football on the weekend. There is no mud, Harry. We don't have to deal with leeches and punji pits or worry about trip wires and booby traps when we walk around. We sleep in beds every night, with sheets and everything. I run the air conditioning even in the winter, Harry, it's something I promised myself when I thought I'd never have it again.
Above all, there is no organized effort to gun us down everywhere we go. When I go to sleep at night, I still know exactly where my gun is. But it's been over 35 years now and I've never needed it once.
I have a wife who loves me, five kids and four grandkids, Harry, can you believe it? If there was a way for me to share with you the joy they have brought me, by God I'd do it. Maybe writing this down helps. Maybe you can feel what I feel.
When I look at all the names on this wall, I think of how some of them died. I can hear the unforgettable smack of bullets tearing into their bodies, see them splayed out in the mud all shot to pieces, or hear them screaming for a Medevac chopper that won't get there in time.
But my reaction to the wall is colored by my own experience. There are lots of people coming here, Harry, and plenty more in Washington, I imagine, and they all react differently.
Many of them feel pain, for there are few who did not lose some friend or relative. I can see it in their eyes. Some feel anger because it was such a terrible waste of young men, and I can see that in their faces, too. Many of the veterans who come here are proud because, like you and I, they did what their country asked them to do. This group walking up now is joking and laughing, sharing funny stories about time spent with fallen friends. I guess that's their way of dealing with it.
The wall is a chronicle, Harry. Every name on it is the title of a story. And the people who can tell each story are the friends and loved ones of those whose names are written here. Every one of these stories needs to be told, or they will be forgotten and the wall will become just a list. Human history is an infinite mosaic, but every human being is entitled to his tiny tile in that mosaic, not a single one of them more important than any other.
The wall is a petition, too, bearing the names of 58,000 people who beg their government to learn from what happened in Vietnam. But, like all petitions, it's ineffective, Harry, because we're already making some of the same mistakes again.
Most of all, the wall is a mirror. Like the war itself, our reactions to it are extremely personal. To look at it is to peer into one's own soul and experience once again our feelings about the war, the people who fought against it, the people who fought in it, and especially those who died in it.
There are a lot tears being shed here, Harry, including mine. I just hope some good comes of it.