Climbing The Wall

Thanks to John Malch and Bill Cotman for their commitment to all who served in Vietnam whether they war the uniform or supported those who wore the uniform!

During an October 1991 visit to Washington, D.C. I decided it was time to visit The Wall, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.  In my many trips to the nation’s capital I visited the many

The Wall (Photo Courtesy of John Malch)

The Wall (Photo Courtesy of John Malch)

excellent museums and memorials that capture the nation’s history, but never The Wall.   Visiting the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was perpetually on the list to see, but I consistently ran out of time on my brief visits; self-deception at its best.  The names, I could not face the thousands of names I did not know among the many I did.   I could not face the pain of the stories and the losses suffered by my fellow travelers compounded by my own.  I refused to face the anger I felt at my country for our botched foreign and covert policies.  Even today, close to forty years later, I struggle with the staggering realities of that war.  Sometimes the weight of the Vietnam that was forty years ago comes close to suffocating me.

I do not recall whether the sky was clear of cloudy, but it was cold on that October morning

In Rememberance (Photo courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc.)

In Rememberance (Photo courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc.)

as I stood on a small rise and looked down on the stark, black wall punctuated with bright flowers and pictures left in respect.  I felt the weight of over 58,000 soldiers who lived and died in Vietnam; the innocent victims of the twisted flames of power, incompetence, and impotence.  Soldiers that were honored and reviled as generations came and went and still the war dragged on and the dying continued. I sat where I was and did not go further.   I did not feel the healing that was promised in the brochures.  What I felt was profound sorrow and when I left I promised myself I would find out why, if it was the last thing I ever did.

Now it is April 2014.  John Malch, Vietnam war archivist and historian, shared an email dialog he had with his friend, Bill Cotman, his friend and colleague, which finally opened the soul-healing floodgates for me.  The promise of The Wall is fulfilling itself not with psychologists and drugs, but with veterans helping other veterans one name at a time.  The magic can work at The Wall or remotely, but it does work for many.

Wall Climbing


I just received this from a friend.  It is a description of the Vietnam War that everyone should read and appreciate the feelings of a young fight pilot forty-two years later.

Although, one sentence in his prose had me puzzled until I determined who he meant:  “I didn’t tell them that our commander-in-chief avoided serving while they were fighting and dying.” 

If the author left Vietnam in 1972 and add 42 years, it is 2014 when he wrote it.  He could not be referring to any of the CIC’s during the Indochina/Vietnam conflict.  As you know, all of them had served in the military. (Truman to Ford)  It could not be Bush the second, as he served in two Air National Guard Wings staring in 1968 and discharged from the Air Force Reserve on November 21, 1974, ending his military service.  And, BHO was still in puberty at age 13 when Saigon fell on 30 April 1975.

My conclusion is this ‘Sierra Hotel’ (Shit-hot in pilot speak) fighter pilot has sublimely bashed Clinton.

Let me know if you concur. John


As we face a new year, I recall visiting with three old friends, a few years back, at a park in the nation’s capital.  It seems like only yesterday that we were all together, but

USS Constellation (CVA-64) underway to Yankee Station. (1972-72) (Photo Courtesy of John Malch)

U.S.Constellation (CVA-64) underway to Yankee Station. (1972-72) (Photo Courtesy of John Malch)

actually it has been 42 years.  There was a crowd at the park that day, and it took us a while to connect, but with the aid of a book we made it.  I found Harry, Bruce and Paul.  In 1970-72 we were gung-ho young fighter pilots on America and Constellation off Vietnam, the cream of the crop of the U.S. Navy, flying F-4J Phantoms.  Now their names are on that 500-foot-long Vietnam War Memorial.  I am hesitant to visit the wall when I’m in Washington DC because I don’t trust myself to keep my composure.  Standing in front of that somber wall, I tried to keep it light, reminiscing about how things were back then.  We used to joke about our passionate love affair with an inanimate flying object-we flew.  We marveled at the thought that we actually got paid to do it.  We were not draftees but college graduates in Vietnam by choice, opting for the cramped confines of a jet fighter cockpit over the comfort of corporate America.  In all my life I’ve not been so passionate about any other work.  If that sounds like an exaggeration, then you’ve never danced the wild blue with a supersonic angel.  To fight for your country is an honor.

I vividly remember leaving my family and friends in San Diego headed for Vietnam. I wondered if I would live to see them again.  For reasons I still don’t understand, I was fortunate to return while others did not.

In the ready room aboard USS Constellation (CVA-64), describing how he downed three MiG-17 fighters in aerial combat over North Vietnam on 10 May 1972. (Photo Courtesy of John Malch)

In the ready room aboard U.S.Constellation (CVA-64), describing how he downed three MiG-17 fighters in aerial combat over North Vietnam on 10 May 1972. (Photo Courtesy of John Malch)

Once in Vietnam, we passed the long, lonely hours in Alert 5, the ready room, our staterooms or the Cubi O’Club. The complaint heard most often, in the standard gallows humor of a combat squadron, was, “It’s a lousy war, but it’s the only one we have.” (I’ve cleaned up the language a bit.) We sang mostly raunchy songs that never seemed to end-someone was always writing new verses-and, as an antidote to loneliness, fear in the night and the sadness over dead friends, we often drank too much.

At the wall, I told the guys only about the good parts of the years since we’ve been apart.

Cubi O'Club

Cubi O’Club

I talked of those who went on to command squadrons.  Those who made Captain and flag rank.  I asked them if they’ve seen some other squadronmates who have joined them.

I didn’t tell them about how ostracized Vietnam vets still are.  I didn’t relate how the media had implied we Vietnam vets were, to quote one syndicated columnist, “either suckers or psychos, victims or monsters.” I didn’t tell them that Hanoi Jane, who shot at us and helped torture our POWs, had married one of the richest guys in the United States.  I didn’t tell them that the secretary of defense they fought for back then has now declared that he was not a believer in the cause for which he assigned them all to their destiny.  I didn’t tell them that our commander-in-chief avoided serving while they were fighting and dying.

And I didn’t tell them we “lost” that lousy war.  I gave them the same story I’ve used for

F-4J Phantoms on USS Constellation flight deck. 1970’s (Photo Courtesy of John Malch)

F-4J Phantoms on U.S.Constellation flight deck. 1970’s (Photo Courtesy of John Malch)

years: We were winning when I left.  I relived that final day as I stared at the black onyx wall.  After 297 combat missions, we were leaving the South China Sea…heading east.  The excitement of that day was only exceeded by coming into the break at Miramar, knowing that my wife, my two boys, my parents and other friends and family were waiting to welcome me home.

I was not the only one talking to the wall through tears.  Folks in fatigues, leather vests, motorcycle jackets, flight jackets lined the wall talking to friends.  I backed about 25 yards away from the wall and sat down on the grass under a clear blue sky and midday sun that perfectly matched the tropical weather of the war zone.  The wall, with all 58,200 names, consumed my field of vision.  I tried to wrap my mind around the violence, carnage and ruined lives that it represented.  Then I thought of how Vietnam was only one small war in the history of the human race.  I was overwhelmed with a sense of mankind’s wickedness balanced against some men and women’s willingness to serve.

 Before becoming a spectacle in the park, I got up and walked back up to the wall to say goodbye and ran my fingers over the engraved names of my friends as if I could communicate with them through some kind of spiritual touch.

I wanted them to know that God, duty, honor and country will always remain the noblest calling.  Revisionist history from elite draft dodgers trying to justify and rationalize their own actions will never change that.

 I believe I have been a productive member of society since the day I left Vietnam.  I am honored to have served there, and I am especially proud of my friends-heroes who voluntarily, enthusiastically gave their all.  They demonstrated no greater love to a nation whose highbrow opinion makers are still trying to disavow them.  May their names, indelibly engraved on that memorial wall, likewise be found in the Book of Life.  Remember that throughout the new year.

From Bill Cotman to John Malch: 8 April 2014

When I went to Vietnam in 1966 it was popular to be there.  Nguyen Kao Ky wasNguyen Kao Ky 1966 charismatic and the press loved him.  The United States said South Vietnam must have free elections.  So about 1968 a short scowling Nguyen Van Thu was voted in as Premier.  His first speech was that the U. S. should do more of the fighting and the Vietnamese more of the Pacification.  I waited for our State Dept. to put him down – they never responded.  The press did not like him and that is when they started putting out the negative stories how we were the bad guys there.  If Nixon had been President 4 years earlier we would have won completely.  As it was he started bombing the rail lines from China to keep the Chinese supplies out and blockading the ports to keep the Russian supplies out.  He brought the North Vietnamese to the Peace Table and ended the war.  The Military left in March 1973 and all we had to do per the peace treaty was supply South Vietnam with Arms & Supplies.  Earlier in 1975 the Senate REFUSED to appropriate the funds because it was unpopular to be there, even though the Military had left 2 years before.   When the supplies were cut off then South Vietnam fell……….. did you know that President Kennedy had decided to pull out of Vietnam?  But since it was popular to be there at the time, he decided to wait until he was re-elected before he pulled out.  He was killed and Johnson didn’t know his plans and didn’t know how to stop North Vietnam.  This came out years later from Mike Mansfield and his Postmaster-General, Kenny O’Donnell.


From Pat to Bill Cotman: April 7, 2014

I just ran across this, from back in January this year.  I re-read this “author anonymous” letter, so sad.  58,200 dead military for a failed attempt by this country to save the good Vietnamese from the scourge of Communism.  Or whatever the reason.

You probably have a lot better idea of the reasoning since you served time there in a civilian capacity.  I don’t see how any returning vet from Vietnam could keep from being bitter to some degree for the rest of his life; The un-appreciation showed them when they returned either on leave or discharge.  It must feel lonely to know you risked your life, nearly lost your life, witnessed buddies blown away, while at home guys burnt their draft cards and moved to safe Canada till it was all over, and then to see the draft-dodgers released from prosecution with a wave of a hand in a mass amnesty program.

They must have felt there is no justice in the world, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I mean, how could you feel if you were at the ripe age and wanted to serve your country because you felt it the “right thing to do” and then go through all those horrors of the Vietnam war or conflict.

I still mean all the things I wrote you back in January, but “forgive and forget” was a lot easier for me on “relative Easy Street” working and living in the Bay Area watching Walter Cronkite report the war on tv.

And what about comparing the Vietnam experience with Iraq and Afghanistan?  There is really no comparison, is there?


Reference from January, 2014

Yes I can remember many negative feelings I experienced in the 60s and 70s. But My 1st cousin Sandra’s husband Vince turned my cynical negative attitude around and had a tremendous effect on me that has lasted all the days since, and that date was in 1970 I think.

To sum it up as best as I remember he said: We will never turn this country’s attitude around if everyone just talks and complains about our sick society.  We must collectively think and talk positively and our attitudes and the examples that we set, are the only way to make changes for the better.

I can still be sucked into negative attitude remembering.

I guess the key is, don’t forget the horrors, we need to remember in order to help prevent repeating those things.  But we must build up the good things, the good ways of life for the present and future.  Every living individual contributes, either positively or negatively, to the collective attitude of society.

I believe this.

Thank god for Vince.  I think I would have corrected my cynical behavior even without that discussion with Vince, but that discussion, that day, was my turning point, or at least that’s the way I attribute it.

One other thing about attitude had a lasting effect on me:  A sales talk I attended once, the speaker said, “I have a plaque on my wall that I look at every day, which reads: You can think any thought that you want to think” Unknown Author


Maya Ying Lin

Maya Ying Lin

I did not like Maya Ying Lin’s design when it was first showcased. I saw Vietnam as a gaping gulf with a kraken ferociously protecting the many and varied views of the war, but I was proud that the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was built entirely from private funding provided by 275,000 Americans.  As time unfolded I see that Maya Lin was right.  The memorial really is a wall that must be climbed.

2 thoughts on “Climbing The Wall

  1. TEARS AND LAUGHTER AND MORE TEARS AND LAUGHTER FOR THOSE WHO SERVED THERE. Will those who didn’t ever really understand?

    • I believe many try. More importantly, many now accept that they do not understand and give the respect that is due.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *