They came from all over the country, their patches and ball caps revealing how far they’d traveled. Montana. Arizona. Tennessee. Connecticut. Pennsylvania. New York. New Jersey. Florida. Texas.
Some still had military haircuts. Some wore their hair long, or had full gray beards. Many had jackets with their regiments or battalions and years of service in country.
The back of one jacket had a beautifully embroidered green map of Vietnam with the words “When I die I am going to Heaven” above it _ “Because I’ve spent my time in Hell” below.
Many, too, had come from nearby, like Retired Staff Sgt. Michael Gantt, who went to Vietnam twice, first, at 17, in 1972, and again at the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. He was also as mobilized as a reservist for the first Gulf War.
Gantt, who lives in Baltimore, was one of the thousands who attended the 24th annual Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
They listened to keynote speaker Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who led a rifle platoon in Vietnam.
As he stood in his dress uniform, a mass of decorations on his chest gleaming in the sun, he waited for the noise of a plane overhead to die away before he shared why this was an intense moment for him.
He named a handful of men who died while following his orders, some by their nicknames, like “Little Joe Arnold.” Their names are on The Wall, along with more than 58,000 others.
“I still owe them more than I can ever pay,” he said. “But it is my honor to try.”
It’s now 40 years since the early battles of Vietnam, and many of the veterans at the ceremony have gray hair or middle-aged spread.
But when Pace said if al Qaeda somehow wiped out our armed forces, there are 25 million veterans who “are willing to strap it back on,” they interrupted him with applause.
“You got that right. That’s right,” men murmured.
He told them that al Qaeda wants to destroy our way of life.
“I’m here to tell you there are 2.4 million men and women in uniform that are flat out not gonna let that happen,” he said.
The crowd clapped and whistled.
Gantt said he’s come to this ceremony 10 times.
“Here, if you’re a combat veteran, you can be you,” he said. “Don’t matter what color you are, you can walk up to anybody and say, ‘Welcome home,’ and it means something. People want to come out of nowhere, grab you, hug you. It just feels good. It makes you feel like people haven’t forgotten.”
Bob Kincaid, who was in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966, flew in from Boulder, Colo. He’s come every year since 1992, when his battalion started having a reunion at the ceremony. He was in a battle 40 years ago that was remembered in the ceremony Friday, and he stayed in Vietnam a few more months until he was wounded.
“Then I spent over a year in the hospital,” he said.
The friendships keep him coming every year. “We’re the only ones that can keep the memories alive of the people that didn’t make it,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. He knew 37 men who were killed. “If we don’t do it, no one else will.”
As he was talking, Marie Lindner stopped him to chat about Denver. She saw his Boulder sweatshirt, and she grew up in Denver, but lives in suburban Washington.
Her husband Clifford Linder died in 1969 in Vietnam, at age 33. They’d been married two years.
“It’s very difficult to come to these things. It just brings back the memories you don’t want to have brought back,” she said.
(E-mail leem(at)shns.com or visit www.shns.com.)