WASHINGTON — The former Marine went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial once, but vowed never to return.
“I just wanted to go to see the wall, but as I got closer, I got panicky, and the closer I got, the more panicky I got. And when I got the wall, I seen some names and I couldn’t take it no more,” he said, declining to give his name. “I never been back since.”
He was in Vietnam from March 1968 to January 1969, and was wounded twice. The first time, they sent him back to duty. After the second time, he went home.
While at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington on Thursday, he visited The Wall That Heals Traveling Museum, a mobile display of some of the items people have left at the wall and photographs donated by friends and family members of Vietnam veterans. They are displayed behind glass panes so they can be viewed from the outside.
It wasn’t overwhelming, he said, but seeing two cans of C-rations got to him. It’s a reminder of a war he wishes he could forget.
He’d rather not think about those memories.
“None of them are good,” he said. “None of them.”
Jason Cain, 32, manages the mobile museum for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became involved with the group out of a sense of gratitude toward Vietnam vets.
“I have education benefits, health benefit. There’s hundreds of nonprofit organizations that are out there doing everything from taking guys snowboarding to scuba diving to helping them pay for school,” he said. “We have every opportunity afforded to us and that is a direct result of Vietnam veterans making sure the current veterans are never treated the way they were again.”
The Wall That Heals Traveling Museum is meant to bring the healing power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to people who can’t make it to Washington, Cain said. Part of the exhibit is a half-sized replica of the wall itself, but it wasn’t on display in Washington on Thursday, in part because the real one is nearby.
The museum typically visits between 24 and 30 sites per year, and is slated to go next to Blue Springs, Mo., he said.
Even though Cain was born three years after Saigon fell, he can relate to some of the items showcased at the museum.
“There’s a helmet on there with a 3/505 pin, which was my battalion in the 82nd, so those are guys who were my direct predecessors in my units, and the stories and the letters that are on the truck are the exact same kind of things that guys from my generation — any generation — would write home during war,” he said. “War is war.”
When he sees pictures of Vietnam soldiers, he recognizes the sorrow.
“You wish you could have been there to ease their pain,” he said.
Among the items showcased by the traveling museum, one stands out for him: A unit pin for the Company A, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, which lost 22 soldiers in one day in March 1967.
“People leave stuff at the wall to help heal themselves,” Cain said. “I hope whoever it was who left that there is a stronger person now because he was kinda able to let go.”
Eventually, there will be a memorial for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
When asked what items he might leave there, Cain said, “Anything from my dog tags, pictures of my friends that I lost, stories — a lot of these are personal letters to someone’s friend, the last thing they wanted to say that they never got to say. I’d probably do something similar.”
Upcoming tour stops
- September 30 - October 3: Blue Springs, Missouri, Pink Hill Park
- October 7 - 10: Vinita, Oklahoma, American Legion Post 40
- October 21 - 24: Washington City, Utah, Washington City Memorial Park
- November 4 - 7: Auburn, Washington, Veterans Memorial Park
- November 18-21: Sebring, Florida, Lake Shores Mall
- December 2 - 5: Morgan City, Louisiana, Morgan City Municipal Auditorium