As with all family members of Vietnam veterans living or dead, I have a special interest in one of the panels: Panel 3 East. Panel 3 East represents the Ia Drang Valley ambush. My oldest brother was with A Company, First of the Fifth. When he was severely wounded by a mortar barrage, four men from his platoon lifted and dragged him in his bloody poncho through enemy fire and to the Medivac chopper. They never made it back to the platoon and are listed on Panel 3 East.
My brother was never the same after Vietnam. His eyes darted back and forth. His head turned sharply at every unexpected noise. He couldn’t sit still for long and couldn’t sleep. He had night terrors and day triggers that burned a haunted look into his eyes. He was aged. He was twenty-three years old.
In 2005 over Veterans’ Day, I attended a First Cavalry reunion that marked the fortieth anniversary of the Ia Drang Valley battle. The veterans talked with great wit and charm, right up until that sound…or that word…or that photograph…came into their view and suddenly, there it was again: a face drained of color and turning ashen gray; the glittering stab of pain shining out from the eyes; a haunted look I recognized.
The reunion weekend concluded at Panel 3 East of the Wall on Sunday at sunrise, for a reading of the names by (Ret.) Colonel Hal Moore and Joe Galloway (authors of the book that describes the Ia Drang battle, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young).
We gathered in the wee hours while it was still dark. The First Cavalry Honor Guard was standing at attention on the top of the Panel, holding the flag and the campaign ribbons of the First Cavalry. In the pre-dawn darkness, you could only see them when a flash from a camera exploded. Then the blue and gray, red white and blue, became etched against the black of the night in eerie poignancy.
The veterans who gathered at the Wall were somber. Their eyes shifted from the ground to the Panel, then to the ground again. The family members kept close, warily watching their veteran, wondering if they could be strong enough to face whatever emotion would be called forth from the depths of those they loved, who have already given so much.
Moore and Galloway took their places in front of the panel as the sun rays began to creep upon the ground, encasing the entire memorial in a grayish light. One by one, the names were read with deep respect and choked voices. With each name, the sun’s rays widened its grip of the earth, broadening its reach against the panel. Name after name, the dawn crept in stealthily, gently highlighting the Honor Guard, and bleeding the reddish hue of the dawn down the panel. Like a stream of blood on a battlefield. Stifled sobs could be heard from time to time in the intense quiet of the group and above the sound of a name being read.
I searched the faces of the veterans, wondering how many of them went “back there.” Were they suffering, too, with night terrors or flashbacks? Did they feel out of place in their skin because America had no place to file them away after they came back? Their shaking shoulders and dropped heads told me everything I needed to know.
They broke my heart.
Tears slid down my cheeks.
I turned back to stare at the panel, hearing the veterans crying for those whose names are listed.
…I cried for those whose names are not.
Karen St. John
"For Those who Are Not" © 2007