On April 30, 1975—thirty years after the United States first became involved in Southeast Asia—North Vietnamese soldiers stormed the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon and raised the communist flag. The Vietnam War was over. [from The Vietnam War, a book by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward]
A week earlier, in a speech to the nation delivered at Tulane University, then-President Gerald Ford pronounced that the time had finally come “to unify, to bind up the nation’s wounds … and begin a great national reconciliation.” More than forty years later, “we’ve been unable to put that war behind us. The deep wounds it inflicted on our nation, our communities, our families, and our politics have festered.” [from The Vietnam War, Burns and Ward]. In an interview for the Ken Burns documentary series, aired last year on PBS, U.S. Army veteran Phil Gioia said, “The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country as it had probably never been polarized since before the Civil War, and we’ve never recovered.”
This month, residents of San Luis Obispo County will have a chance to begin (or to deepen) their own process of recovery when The Wall That Heals comes to our city for four days. This scaled traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. was unveiled in 1996, 14 years after the original was completed. Since then, The Wall That Heals has come to nearly 600 communities across the nation, offering millions the chance to pay tribute, to remember, to learn, and to heal.
More than 58,000 American service men and women lost their lives in the Vietnam War, with an astounding 1600 more still unaccounted for. When Tabitha Castillo, Administrative Assistant for the SLO County Veterans Services Office and a veteran herself, heard about The Wall That Heals, she wanted to bring it here.
“I’m an OEF / OIF [Operation Enduring Freedom / Operation Iraqi Freedom] veteran,” she said, “and in my experience, deploying, returning from deployments, and military life, everyone was so supportive. It’s hard for me to imagine NOT being welcomed home [as Vietnam veterans were not], coming home to a country in turmoil, with little or no support for any kind of transition. Assisting with this project is my way of supporting Vietnam veterans.”
Though The Wall That Heals was here 21 years ago, it’s been a long time between visits. A whole new generation has grown to adulthood since then. So Castillo made sure that ours was among the first of more than 100 applications submitted to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund during Memorial Day weekend of 2017. A few months later, she learned we had been one of only 38 cities selected to host it.
Working alongside Castillo is Outreach Coordinator John Aparicio, also of SLO County Veterans Services. Raised by his grandfather, who was a Vietnam vet, John was forever marked by his service, and subsequently served in the U.S. Air Force in Germany and Afghanistan.
“I’d like to see our community, and our military community—veterans, active duty, and guard or reserve service members—come together to honor and support the ones who did not get the homecoming they deserve,” he said.
In addition to the wall itself, which will be opened at Madonna Meadows on Thursday, March 29 at 12 a.m. and will close at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 1, 2018, there will also be a Mobil Education Center and information tent.
The Education Center includes photos of service members whose names are on The Wall, letters and memorabilia left at The Wall in D.C., a map of Vietnam, and a chronological overview of the war.
“We’ll also have speakers, current service members, members of the Vietnam Veterans of America, as well as mental health professionals and other support staff throughout the visit,” said Aparicio.
The exhibit is free of charge and will be open 24 hours a day to give even those who are apprehensive about visiting The Wall a chance to experience it in relative private.
Our county is home to 17,000 veterans, with 7,000 of those having served in Vietnam. Thirty-one of the names on The Wall were from here.
When she unveiled her design (of the original Wall) in 1981, architect Maya Lin said that a visit to her memorial would be a journey “that would make you experience death, and where you’d have to be an observer. … [It isn’t] something that’s going to say, It’s all right, it’s all over. Because it’s not.”
Prior to its building, Jan C. Scruggs, Founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc. said, “If all of the names could be in one place, these names would have a great power—a power to heal. … Collectively they would have the power to show the enormity of the sacrifices that were made.”
Each person who visits The Wall, whether the original in D.C. or the replica traveling version, has his or her own unique experience. So come to The Wall That Heals and take your own time with it.
“We’re looking forward to an outpouring of community support,” said Aparicio. “A show of unity to honor our Vietnam veterans, to show them they are not forgotten, that their service was deeply appreciated.”
For more information visit www.slocounty.ca.gov or call SLO County Veterans Services Office at 805-781-5766.