Lake Forest Salutes Vietnam Veterans and a Wall Volunteer

One of VVMF’s volunteers is leading the 2012 Lake Forest Day Parade tomorrow. Paul Baffico, a Vietnam veteran, is leading the parade themed “Lake Forest Salutes Vietnam Veterans.”

Read more about the parade in the local paper.

Baffico graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1968 and headed to Vietnam shortly afterward.

Watch the video about Baffico who is this year’s Red Cross Hero in Lake Forest.

Here is a Volunteer Story that Paul wrote about his first day at The Wall:

My first opportunity to be an official volunteer at The Wall was the Memorial Day weekend of 2006. The crowd was expected to be 350,000 to 400,000 over the 3 days, including the annual ceremony. I was a bit nervous about what to expect and about making mistakes.

I had dutifully adorned my volunteer shirt and hat with a patch or a pin of the 101st Airborne Division and some of my miniature medals because I was told that wearing your unit identification made you more approachable by visitors or veterans. I had not worn the patch of the 101st since I came home on January 23rd, 1971. I never wore any of my ribbons, but I wanted to be as professional and proper as I could be so I put them on.

It was a bright and sunny day and the crowd was very large. I was about to get initiated. I took up a position in front of panels W5 through W12 the panels that represent the time I was in Vietnam, away from most of the other volunteers. I was adjacent to Leroy who stands in front of his men’s names. My position made it convenient for me to ask him questions. Lots of questions (I had studied hard, but still needed lots of help), lots of name rubbings, and many offers of thanks for volunteering.

I realized I was instantly comfortable to be a part of the memorial and the activity it ignites.  As the time passed that first day, I came to understand what Leroy, my fellow volunteer mentor, had told me the day we met: this was the best he had felt since he came home. It was for me also: proud, not ashamed. I had put my life on the line for my country when others didn’t, and I didn’t have to apologize, defend or explain to anyone why I did. I had memories I needed to process not avoid. I had losses I needed to grieve and honor. It felt right and good to stand in front of those five names and the others that I knew. I slowly realized I had a very strong visceral connection with this inanimate object. It had hurt me when I didn’t understand its symbolism or relevance to me and my painful memories.  Now I could embrace it. I realized The Wall was an integral part of me and me of it. It felt like I belonged with it.

A man came up to me and asked if I had been in the 101st in Vietnam. I said had been and he asked me when. I told him and we exchanged a few more points of coincidence about our service experiences. Then he looked at my name badge and said, “Are you the Paul Baffico that went to the University of San Francisco?”

I paused and looked at him carefully as I took off my dark glasses to get a better look and thought it couldn’t be. I asked him if he was the Major Gerry Landry that had taught ROTC at The University of San Francisco when I was a sophomore in 1966, exactly 40 years ago. It was. We shook hands and embraced. We did some catching up on some people before exchanging contact information and then Landry took off. I was so pleased about this blast from the past that I ran over to Leroy to tell him.

“Yeah,” he said. “Some people call that Wall Magic, and it happens all the time.” I asked if he had ever experienced it and he said he had many times: men from his platoon, his company commander, and others. Now it felt even more special to be participating as a volunteer.

Time passed very quickly that first day. I couldn’t seem to get enough of the experience; the observations of very personal stories that unfolded in front of me—veterans coming for the first time and finding the names of people they had known and fought with—the heart-wrenching exposure of memories long buried and watching the relief of a significant other who had suffered almost as much.

There were the relatives of those whose names are carved in the black granite—their loss is still very real after all the years and their recall of the difficulty of the day they were notified of the loss.  I was moved by the number of people still missing in action and the vigil that continues to follow in their memory—bracelets, letters, searches, and friends and relatives that will not forget them.

The consistency of the questions was very fascinating: How are the names arranged?  How many names? Why does it say 1959? When did the war start? Did you go?

The last question was a shock because no one had ever asked me that in the last 35 years. It was not a relevant question in the context of my everyday life. Here, it was a new experience because the question was based in sincere interest about me and my experience, not based in animosity or my beliefs about the war. Each and every time I answered in the affirmative, the response was invariably, “Thank you.” Wow. That was amazing. I had never been thanked before. It felt very good.

I realized that deep inside me I had lived most of my life with a need to be acknowledged for my service and the sacrifices all of us made in going to war…no different for us in Vietnam than for any other warrior.