Why I Volunteer at The Wall
Lt. Col. Anthony V. Fasolo, USA (Ret)
This past Memorial Day I volunteered to take part in a special ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C., marking 50 years since the United States became involved in the conflict in Vietnam. I have volunteered at The Wall in D.C. since 1994 and here is why:
My tour in Vietnam started just before Christmas in 1969. Shortly after midnight, I arrived at Cam Ranh Bay in my jungle fatigues on a World Airways commercial jet. Despite the fact that the Viet Cong had attacked this area the night before, our plane was illuminated by huge spotlights. I had expected to run all the way to the waiting transportation, but instead we proceeded at a leisurely pace down the stairs from the plane to the buses that were waiting to transport us to the inprocessing center. The buses had heavy metal screens on each window. This was comforting to me considering the fact that we really were in a “War Zone.” At the inprocessing center, we were shown a movie featuring Gen. Westmoreland, who at that time was the Commander of U.S. Forces in Vietnam. He tried to explain what we were doing in this strange land in Asia. Since it was 2 a.m., or 0200 in military time, and considering we had just completed a very long plane ride, I am not sure the message got through to us.
The next thing that happened to us was perhaps the most surreal. We were taken to a very large room and told by a young U.S. Army soldier to stand in front of a very long trough containing many spigots. He then told us to brush our teeth for five minutes with a tube of fluoride toothpaste. At the end of five minutes he would turn on the water so that we could rinse our mouths out. This was because there were few dentists in Vietnam and the Army wanted us to keep our teeth free of decay. I thought that this young soldier had been given a lot of authority and laughed to myself when he told those wearing the Army’s dress green uniform to remove their jackets lest they get stained by the fluoride. I laughed because I thought at that time about the Roman Legions and wondered if they had to brush their teeth and if they were warned to take off their breastplates once they entered a foreign country? As I reflected at the end of my tour, a sense of humor really helped get me through my tour of duty in Vietnam.
After this unusually long night, the serious part of my tour started. In the morning, I was flown to Long Binh and the headquarters of the U.S. Army Vietnam or USARV. The second day I was there I saw Bob Hope and his Christmas Show. He and the entertainers he had brought with him put on a great show in the boiling Vietnam sun. I then had an uneasy feeling that many of these very appreciative servicemen and women might become subjects of reports that I would write during my tour.
As an Army major, I was assigned to the USARV Casualty and Medevac Branch from December 1969 to December 1970. I never left the base except to visit mortuaries or hospitals and when I was given rest and relaxation leave with my wife in Bangkok. She flew there from Germany, which was where she and our three children stayed while I was in Vietnam. At USARV Headquarters, I was responsible for reporting the names of all the dead and wounded Army personnel to the Pentagon. About 10 soldiers were assigned to my branch who actually typed up the messages for transmission to the Pentagon. We did not have computers at that time. Many of the names that we sent in 1970 are now on The Wall in Washington, D.C. After we sent the notifications, the Pentagon would assign a notification officer and then a separate survivor’s assistance officer for the next-of-kin (NOK) for any dead soldiers. We made sure that appropriate sympathy letters were sent to the NOK. We also received and answered many questions about the cause of death on behalf of the families, members of Congress and even from the president of the United States.
Another duty I had was the accounting for the wounded and those who had not contacted their families for a long time. This latter group was known as the “Health and Welfare” group. We usually reported back to families, members of Congress and the president that the soldier was “present for duty, capable of writing, and urged to write.” We also provided periodic reports on the wounded. I remember sending daily reports to the wife of a soldier who had lost both his arms and legs. These were messages that I personally passed between wife and husband through the Pentagon. These reports went on for several days and coupled with the daily routine of the job, caused me to lose a lot of sleep and weight. But I drew comfort from the fact that I had been on a truly special mission and that the military truly cared about its soldiers and their families.
Then why volunteer for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and at The Wall and stir up these memories? I see volunteering as a continuation of the tour I had in Vietnam. I started volunteering in 1994 in response to a request for volunteers that appeared in the Washington Post. First I worked with the “In Memory Group.” This group had been formed to honor the memory of those that had died as a result of their time in Vietnam, but were ineligible to have their names placed on The Wall. I was a sponsor for survivors who came to The Wall to honor their loved ones. All of them were sincerely grateful that someone truly cared for their loved ones who they believed had died as a result of service to our country.
I now work with VVMF and continue working with the “In Memory” ceremony by placing roses at The Wall on Father’s Day. My daughter, Grace Malacrida, a former U.S. Air Force captain, also participated in one of these ceremonies recently. Each Father’s Day, we place notes from loved ones on the long stem red roses for those who are dead and yellow roses for those who are missing. We stand as one group and read one or two of the tributes that are on the many roses that we carry to the Wall. This is always a trying time and usually brings tears to the eyes of those of us who read these remembrances. We then go to the panel where the soldier’s name is etched and we touch the rose to the name and read aloud what is on the note. The rose is then placed carefully at the base of the panel where the name is located. It is one way to honor those who made ultimate sacrifice for their loved ones and their country. We should never forget them or their sacrifices.
That’s why I volunteer at The Wall.