A sudden hush fell over the bus, the jokes and war stories suddenly forgotten as 32 Vietnam veterans witnessed something they had never seen.
As the bus passed dozens of American flags and handheld signs proclaiming “Thank you for your service,” jaws dropped, eyes watered and one veteran wept aloud.
The applause and handshakes as they exited the bus were a surprise ending to three days of bonding and sight-seeing in the nation’s capital. The trip to Washington was provided free to the veterans through the Vets to Washington Project, which is led by Doug Hastings. This was his first trip dedicated just to Vietnam vets.
“When they came together on this bus, I saw the brotherhood we shared come back in five minutes,” said Hastings, who served four tours with the Army in Vietnam. “We were a band of brothers, just like in battle.”
The bus departed early Friday morning, with veterans of all ages and backgrounds. Some served early in the conflict as infantry or sailors in the Gulf of Tonkin; others were advisers as the fighting intensified. A handful had survived fierce combat in Korea only to find themselves in the jungles of Vietnam more than a decade later.
Stan Schrader and Baine Flournoy were sitting beside each other on the bus Friday morning and discovered they were stationed across an
airstrip from each other during their deployments from 1965-66. They swapped war stories from a time when the fighting was just starting in earnest and the casualties were high.
“They would come back (from battle) so thin they were always merging units together,” Flournoy said.
The camaraderie grew as the bus crossed into North Carolina and Virginia. As darkness fell on the outskirts of Washington, the bus was loud with laughter and the Motown songs of their generation.
By Friday night, they were united for their first visit to the Vietnam memorial. The veterans spread out, hands jammed in the pockets of their jackets against the searching cold. Darkness blurred the names on the towering black walls.
Flournoy stood, breath steaming, watching members of a Veterans of Foreign Wars group from Connecticut salute the monument and read aloud the names of service members on the wall. The massive walls had resurrected a deep-rooted survivor’s guilt inside him. He wondered what set him apart, why he came home when others didn’t.
“You don’t know how to account for your survival,” Flournoy said.
Saturday dawned bright and clear on the National Mall. Crowds of veterans spilled out of tour buses parked at the Lincoln Memorial, their black jackets contrasting with the bright colors of joggers’ attire.
Army veteran Ed Holmes flipped through the laminated pages of a book near the monument, searching for three names of men he knew in Vietnam: Sgt. Thomas Lee Blanks, Pfc. Daniel Aguilera and Pfc. Michael Jefferson Trusty.
With the panel numbers in hand, he weaved through the school groups and clumps of old soldiers to find their names. A park ranger used a pencil to rub the names onto a piece of paper for Holmes.
He was not particularly close to these three soldiers, but the rubbings in his hand serve as a physical connection to a place locked away in his mind.
“Just spending three months in that country forges bonds that you can’t get any other way,” Holmes said.
The trip continued on that day, and the veterans shared bus seats and war stories as they loaded and unloaded outside memorials. By Sunday afternoon, the reserved group had transformed into a tight-knit squad that took turns sharing “my story” with the whole bus.
The wives on the trip carry a special insight into the healing properties of the wall. Leigh Thouvenot, whose Army veteran husband Jim Thouvenot spent 11 months in Vietnam, said she noticed most of the veterans have two personalities: the wise-cracking, easygoing guy and the somber, reflective service member at the wall. The sides were reconciled during the trip.
“Just being at that wall has allowed them to open up,” Thouvenot said.
Sally Burkett, the wife of sailor Ken Burkett, who laid ambushes in the Mekong Delta, said this second trip to the wall was much better than their first stop in 1994. She uses the word “healing” often when talking about the experience.
“There’s been much less pain this time,” Burkett said.