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July 29, 2014

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The Wall is filled with untold stories

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“How would life have ever been the same if this wall had carved in it, one less name?”

— From the song “The Big Parade” by 10,000 Maniacs.

The dignitaries were long gone, and the midday crowd had disappeared with them.

Coachman Park was mostly silent now, just the gentle sound of a nearby fountain and the reserved murmur of the curious passing through. If anyone noticed the man in the cap and sleeveless black jacket, they politely pretended otherwise.

As he traced a finger across the names of panel E14, Michael Weeks dropped to one knee. Head bowed, shoulders shaking, he surrendered to a familiar sorrow.

This is the way he wanted it. Far from the speeches and away from the crowds. When he read a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was arriving in Clearwater, Fla., Weeks told his wife he wanted to come alone. He had to come alone.

He didn’t want to trade war stories, and he wasn’t feeling patriotic. He just wanted to see the names and try to recall the faces of boyhood friends and battlefield comrades from long ago.

“To be 67 now and to have these guys that I used to hang around with when I was a kid — drinking beer on a Friday night and playing ball in school — and knowing they will always be 19, 20, 21, it just seems wrong,” Weeks said, oblivious to his tears.

“I feel like they got cheated, you know what I mean? And I feel ashamed that I was able to come back and have a pretty good life. A life they never had.”

This is the understated beauty of the Wall. It offers so little and suggests so much. The names are carved, one after another, with neither embellishment nor insignificance.

Left unsaid is the story behind every name and the lives affected along the way.

In his hands, David Patterson holds the names of a half-dozen men he served with in 1967-68. The lieutenant who was the first man he saw killed. The friend who correctly predicted his own death. The sergeant who had been a father figure and was counting the days until he could retire and open a pub in New Hampshire.

“There’s over 58,000 of them on that wall. All young men whose lives ended so quickly,” Patterson said. “The sad thing is, all these years later, we get caught up in our lives, our own families, our own affairs. And there’s so many of them I’ve forgotten.

“That’s why it was important to come here. Just a sign of respect for the guys I stopped by to see and all the other guys I can’t even remember.”

This replica of the Wall is a little more than half the size of the original in Washington, D.C., but still includes all the original inscriptions.

Each name is accorded the same respect as any other. Neither rank nor wealth apply. It begins with the first casualty of 1959 and continues until the war’s final death in 1975.

To put the number in perspective, the death toll in Vietnam was more than eight times the number of casualties suffered by U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That doesn’t change the significance of a war or the preciousness of a life. It simply is an indication of the enormous toll Vietnam took on an entire generation across America.

“This was such a great generation. It really was. We were at the apex of something new. The hippie thing, the free love thing, the new electronics, it was all coming to pass,” Weeks said. “There could have been a couple of presidents on that wall. Senators, governors, scientists, teachers, artists. Way too young.

“Just one name on that wall could have affected a whole generation.”

John Romano writes for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times.

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