All About Time
By Alivia Tagliaferri
The visitors chattered, drawn out of their homes and shops by the warm temperature of a January day that forgot to be cold. But I paid them no heed. Not the kids on their cell phones, or the traffic-weary car horns or the ambulatory sirens wailing, mattered. I had just been formally introduced to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “The Wall,” by a stoic warrior who stood me before his fallen friends on Panel 17E and simply said: “Well guys, this is the one I was telling you about, the writer.” And the only thing I listened to were the silent stories that emanated from the reflective black granite rock with etched names. The year was 2004 and the day marked my first visit to The Wall.
As I think about that day, a truth emerges that still holds true today: It is about time.
Time stands still at The Wall. You see, my friend wasn’t standing next to me. He was standing next to his friends in Vietnam, “the guys” – Harry, Leland and Danny. Never aged, they are all alive, young, hungry, half-scared but too tired to care. Waiting for the next sound in a foreign jungle to set off their internal alarm; for the firefight to rush adrenaline through their bodies like a stampede, crushing all other cares except ‘stay alive’ and ‘don’t get my buddies killed’; ready for the next wave of NVA to try and take their hill. But the next fight for this warrior was to hold back his emotions, and stem the aching in his heart from missing his friends and mourning their lost years.
The memorial itself is a symbolic reminder of time. Each name of our fallen isetched in chronological order of their deaths, with their names beginning and ending at the center of The Wall – a wall that does not enclose but rather expose. Those that died at the beginning in 1959 touch the names of those last killed in 1975, bringing their war full-circle. There, where time stands still, they live for eternity etched in granite; etched in the hearts of their families and friends, forever.
At 27 years of age, I was fully cognizant of the significance of the Vietnam Memorial. Just six months prior I had been given an assignment with the USO Metro to videotape celebrities visiting and boosting morale of the war-wounded at Walter Reed Medical Center. I had never been to a military hospital, and at the time, had never met a casualty of war from this era. It was August of 2003, and I will never forget walking the halls of that hospital in stunned silence. Men and women, missing arms and legs, blinded and burned, rode down the corridors in wheelchairs. And I had the opportunity to meet them, their families, and learn their stories. But one warrior, who sat in his wheelchair on the patio, smoking a cigarette, will never leave my mind. His face was young but his eyes were old, and when I thanked him for his service, he nodded slightly but resumed his stare, looking out to the lawn, looking for a time that was anywhere but there.
The impact was deep. I never read a newspaper report about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the ticker news crawling on the bottom of the television screen, in the same way again. I saw the look in the warriors’ faces; no report could really describe that look or what they had experienced.
My assignment at Walter Reed ultimately changed my assignment in life. I wanted to help them heal. And I wanted to do that through the power of story.
That November, I met a Vietnam veteran at a business luncheon. At the time, I did not know he had served, but when my colleague thanked him for his service and his three purple hearts, the old veteran fell silent. When he did speak, he shared something I will never forget.
“1967,” he said, “and I was nineteen years old. I was in Vietnam for nine months. And in that nine month period of time, I lost my best friend, held another in my arms as he lay dying, and lost every former sense of self I ever had.”
I was struck by the parallel. Nine months is the same amount of time a baby gestates in the womb. I’ve never been to war, I don’t know what it’s like to be a warrior, but I know what it’s like to be human. And I heard myself speak aloud.
“I don’t know what you went through sir, but I can only imagine that going to war as a 19 year old and coming out a different person must have felt like you were being born again.”
We locked eyes. The other guests at the table remained silent, and then he replied, “That’s exactly what it was like. Except this time, you’re not born with your innocence, you’re born without it.”
Again, I was struck by what he said and more so, the change of tense. “Except this time….” Intuitively I knew what he meant. After forty years, this veteran is still coming home from Vietnam. He is still being born as a new man into his new life – reborn a warrior who must live as a civilian again. But the warrior is within, always within.
Later that weekend, I received a phone call. It was the veteran. “I can’t stop thinking about what you said. About being born again.” We met that Sunday. And over the course of five hours, the old warrior began peeling back the layers of time and revealing his inner self. We met for another five hours every weekend for the following three months, each time drinking from a reservoir of memory that had been shunted the moment he came home.
And I learned. I learned about warriorship. I learned about bonds that never break. I learned about bravery being a by-product of trying to not get your friends killed. I learned that when a friend dies, something dies inside. I learned that when it’s time to pick up the pieces after battle, a switch turns on and a mantra takes over: “It’s just a thing. Ain’t nothing but a thing.”And I learned about time. What it does, how it works, its absence in the midst of a firefight and its vacuum where nothing comes back out the same, if it ever comes back out at all.
On a mild January day, we met at the corner of Constitution Avenue and Henry Bacon Drive for our last Sunday meeting. The veteran had shared everything about Vietnam and his experience fighting for his country, the DMZ, his friends and later his normalcy – but there was one last thing to share. A formal introduction to “the guys” – Harry, Leland and Danny, the guys who didn’t make it home.
The Wall reflected the crowd swarming in front of it and along the stone path. The veteran deemed it too crowded for a proper introduction, so we walked over to a bench in front of the statue called the Three Servicemen, and sat down on the wrought iron seat. He stared into the faces of the sculptures, frozen in that moment for all eternity. I imagined he saw their youth, but more so, saw himself in their stony gaze. Still looking into their faces, the veteran said quietly, “I made it. Maybe so everything they went through over there wasn’t a waste.”
When the crowd thinned, the veteran stood up and waited for me to follow, leading me to a clearing just in front of Panel 17. Standing before his friends and our reflection, he introduced me to Harry, Leland and Danny. “There are over 58,000 names on this wall,” Dennis began. “You asked me why I am doing this. Why am I telling you my story? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s for all the guys who came home, for all the guys who didn’t, and for my son, so that one day he may understand.”
Inspired by the stories the old veteran shared, inspired by the sacred yet silent stories I heard at The Wall, and inspired by my experience at Walter Reed, I began writing. The result, Beyond the Wall: The Journey Home, isa novel about a Vietnam veteran still battling post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt who mentors a wounded Iraq War veteran at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who is recovering from the loss of his legs and his innocence. I wrote the book to help my friend and others like him heal invisible wounds. And I wrote it to help civilians like me understand how a warrior is born so that we can help them come home as the men and women they are now.
Since the book was published, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two Iraq War veterans – both U.S. Marines – to adapt the novel into a play. And in winter 2013, George Washington University will host a stage reading so we can begin sharing this story to a wider audience. I’ve also had the privilege of directing two documentary films that tell the stories of our veterans, service members and their families. The most recent, Profiles in Service: It Takes A Nation, highlights the extent of sacrifice our men and women in uniform and their families make for our country. The documentary does this by sharing the personal and conjoined missions of a nonprofit group, a family who lost their veteran to suicide, and two combat veterans serving with the Patriot Guard Riders on their journey to inspire all Americans to remember service.
What I’ve learned from these veterans, these families and these stories, is this: time does not lessen their loss. Time does not lose their faces, their traces, and their names. Time does not erase the good they created in this world.
As a civilian, I think the paradox of time is this: It takes time to realize the nature of yourself and others. Just like it takes time for a nineteen year old to be reborn a warrior. I could not have grasped the depth of a veteran’s psyche had I not reached a point in my life where appreciation for other people’s experiences, sacrifices, and services would have context. Awareness takes time and maturation, and to some degree, age; however not everyone operates on the same clock. As people, we develop our identity, our skills sets, our talents and gifts at different rates. Likewise, we develop appreciation and respect in non-conformed paces. Time helps us appreciate those who serve. Why? Because we have been given a glimpse at some point in our lives, to understand the depth of its nature and what it means, what it really means.
And when we do, we realize that every day is Veterans Day.
Like I said, it’s all about time.
Alivia Tagliaferri is an author, documentary film maker and playwright. Her work includes, Beyond the Wall: The Journey Home (historical fiction); Beyond the Wall (stage play); Beyond the Wall: Homeless Zone (short documentary); and Profiles in Service: It Takes A Nation (short documentary.)