More Than Just a Wall

“When I heard the term ‘The Wall That Heals,’ I said, ‘Whatever; it’s just a wall,’” Scooter, a retired teacher from eastern Oklahoma, told us early one morning when The Wall That Heals was in Sturgis, South Dakota.

For a long time, Scooter didn’t see the point of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. When he returned from Vietnam, he tried to forget about his time there. He just wanted to go to school and reintegrate into society. When he saw the protesters and peace symbols on campus, he really didn’t know what to think of it all. “I hadn’t seen girls in years, and I just wanted to fit in,” he said. And so he did.

I met Scooter around 8:30 on a Sunday morning under the shade of the tent that houses the information center for The Wall That Heals, the half-sized replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial operated by VVMF. In partnership with Harley-Davidson and Rolling Thunder, we brought The Wall That Heals to the Broken Spoke Campground outside of Sturgis, South Dakota, during the 2010 Motorcycle Rally.

Scooter had just been spending some early morning time with his friends on The Wall. As he was coming back to reality, with shallow tears in his eyes, it was obvious that he wanted to talk. It had been more than 30 years since he returned home from Vietnam, but his visit to The Wall That Heals was infused with similar emotions. “As I approached The Wall, I felt like I was getting ready to get on the plane for basic training,” he told us.

The Wall affects people in the most extraordinary ways. Scooter had noticed traveling Walls come to nearby towns, but he never really saw the need to go—although his friends told him he should. Then, in July, he saw an advertisement for the Sturgis bike rally and The Wall That Heals. “I knew it was time,” he said.

Scooter told us story after story of his time in Vietnam and his experiences coming home. Like many of his brothers in arms, it took Scooter a very long time to ask for help. Sleepless nights, erratic thoughts and behavior, and suppressed emotions are the fodder of every combat veteran. He endured these, eventually asking for help and learning to talk about his experiences. Over time, this social studies teacher was also able to share some of his stories with his students. But as we all know, we can’t tell them all.

After some time, Scooter asked a question that has been weighing heavily on him for a while: “How do we know if we ever got them back?” Of course, he was talking about the thousands of service members who are listed as Missing In Action (MIA) or Prisoners Of War (POW). Many guys were released from captivity, but others remain missing for decades. To this day, we are still recovering and identifying the remains of our fallen in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

But Scooter didn’t mean “them.” He was really asking, “How do I know if we got HIM back?” And he went on to tell us his most intimate and life-changing story.

Scooter was a member of a secret and elite three-man Special Forces detachment that was charged with monitoring the Ho Chi Min trail on the Cambodian side of the border. There would be three American commandos and between five and eight South Vietnamese soldiers who would travel a kilometer or so into the Cambodian jungle in order to gather intelligence on concentrations of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Occasionally, they were discovered. When that happened, they would either hide or sprint for the border. They made a vow that if one of them got hit, the others wouldn’t risk stopping to help their downed friend. This was just part of operating alone in the bush, and fate would test their devotion to this pact.

One of Scooter’s teammates always carried the K-bar machine gun. When the inevitable time to run for the border came, the team knew to drop all unessential items and just run. But this teammate insisted that the K-bar was essential, and he kept it.

Because of his reduced speed and agility, he got hit.

Scooter ran back to check on him, but was immediately waved off. “We made a promise!” his friend yelled. Scooter turned and ran. He heard a dozen or so three- to five-second bursts before the gun went silent.

Both Scooter and his remaining teammate knew that their buddy went down protecting them and might well have saved their lives. They had no idea how many VC he had taken out, and honestly, they couldn’t be positive that he hadn’t taken them all out. Could he have been captured? Could he still be alive? “How do we know if we got him back?”

Since they were on the Cambodian side of the border, they couldn’t mount a search-and-rescue mission to find him or recover the body. Scooter has spent his life not knowing if his buddy, whose name he can’t remember, ever made it back. He might not have known his friend’s name or been able to see it on The Wall, but he was able to tell a group of fellow veterans his story and let just a little bit of that pain out of his heart.

That is why it is called The Wall That Heals.