Scale this wall with your heart and soul
If there was one group of veterans that made an impact with my generation of Marines, it was the Vietnam vets.
There existed this shared kinship, as they were our senior drill instructors, senior staff noncommissioned officers, battalion, regiment and division commanders and the corps commandant. We still used their equipment, carried the same weapons, and rode the same patched- up helicopters we jokingly referred to as Boeing body bags. We ran to the same ceaseless cadences about Ho Chi Minh and how we were going to take a little trip on a C-130 running down the strip. It may have been five years after the fall of Saigon, but on many levels, Parris Island, S.C., was still engaged with Vietnam.
But at the end of the day, we weren't them, but their ardent apprentices.
We respected them and there existed a certain reverence for what they endured. We all were well-acquainted with how poorly they were treated upon returning home and, to a much lesser degree, that sentiment still lingered.
To a man, there existed this tacit creed for redemption.
It was impossible to dismiss any of the drill instructors, but Staff Sgt. Cooley possessed his own plateau. He was a junior D.I. awaiting his opportunity at becoming a senior D.I., which he would eventually obtain as our platoon neared graduation. He had a boatload of ribbons, the most I had ever seen - a fruit salad of the first order.
I saw such ribbons before having run across my dad's Korean War ones as we packed in our move to Pennsylvania, but never thought too much about them. My lack of curiosity quickly changed only days after arriving, thanks to my initial boot camp bunkie. His name was Manzi, and he hailed from Albany, N.Y. He took ROTC in high school and was already cognizant with such military protocol.
Manzi was quite impressed with Staff Sgt. Cooley.
To me, the D.I.'s were all clones: loud, humorless and unrelenting.
Manzi told me Cooley's personal decorations included the Silver Star, Bronze Star with combat V, two Purple Hearts and the RVN Gallantry Cross, among others. While on platoon fire watch in the middle of the night, I verified such on the barracks medal chart posted near the DI quarters.Word of Cooley's heroic resume spread like a wildfire. and recruit training platoon 3044 turned to Cooley unlike any other D.I. or officer we had, Vietnam service or not.
It was evident that the only thing that could stop Cooley was Cooley.
Staff Sgt. Cooley was the most decorated Marine in the battalion and he belonged to us. When he instructed and shared his insight in the field at Elliott's Beach, he spoke with an authority that commanded more than our attention, for he had our hearts and minds. No one wanted to fail him. You quickly learned you fought for Marines like Cooley, the men in your platoon and all those who earned the eagle, globe and anchor before you.
It was unspoken and the greatest of lessons.
For the Vietnam veteran, their average age in the field of fire was a tender 19. Juxtapose that to the average World War II veteran who was 26 - simply ancient for a grunt in Southeast Asia.
Today, our surviving Vietnam vets are all over 60. The war, however, remains permanently ingrained; there's no escaping. It was the defining event for a generation and, for nearly 40 years, their war had the distinction as being the longest in the nation's history. Now it is second to Afghanistan.
Vietnam, however, was different in many respects. Arguably, the most startling is the casualty list.
It is immense.
More than 58,000 killed.
Plenty more were wounded.
But how to honor such commitment that in the end was as polarized as it was polemical?
A modest black granite wall.
Walls are simple, yet primordial, structures that can serve as a variety of functions that are often used for protection, separation or perhaps for just sustaining the status quo. But not this wall, for this wall is more like a bridge that was constructed for honor and healing. It was also built for history. The names upon it have been immortalized in a way that only mankind can commemorate as a monument to those who expended everything they had - their lives.
The Vietnam War Memorial, better known as "The Wall," has stood in the Washington, D.C., Mall since 1982. According the U.S. Department of Parks, which cares for this unique national treasure, more than 3 million people make the journey to the nation's capital to solemnly walk past its many panels of names.
A replica of the wall that is about half the size of the original in Washington, D.C., and was initially constructed by Vietnam veteran volunteers was unveiled for the first time in Tyler, Texas, in October 1984. Today, there are two moving walls, one west of the Mississippi River and the other east of it that traverse the American countryside from April through November. They spend about a week at each venue, bridging that gap for those who can't make the trek to Washington D.C.
The eastern version of the moving wall is not unfamiliar with the southern reaches of Northumberland County, nor to the dozen or so names of its native sons who are enshrined upon it. The last time the wall made an appearance was in Elysburg a decade ago, drawing more than 60,000 visitors. The wall will undertake its latest tour of duty thanks in part to the efforts of Sol Bidding, a Northumberland County native who served in Vietnam with the Marine Corps.
Bidding's efforts that began more than a year ago couldn't have asked for better timing as the wall's visit will coincide with the 150th anniversary of the founding of Shamokin and the 50th anniversary of the start of our nation's campaign in Vietnam. But Bidding was quick to point out that it will also be here on the original designation of Memorial Day, May 30.
School may be winding down and field trips may be a thing of the recent past, but if there is one expedition that should be undertaken by every able-bodied person who has gotten this far in the column, it is to visit and digest this unique American memorial that can be found directly outside of Shamokin in Tharptown beginning at 4 p.m. Thursday and running until noon Monday, June 2.
A special ceremony will be conducted at the wall in Tharptown at 1 p.m. Saturday, when Vietnam and Marine Corps veteran Andy Bubnis, of Elysburg, an unfailing gentleman at every turn, who went on to earn a bachelor's and master's degree after coming back from the war and is a retired school administrator, will speak about the price paid by this most unfairly maligned group of veterans. They answered the call when so many of their generation opted for deferment of service. Many others picked up and fled the country, there were still others who made it a point to protest and ridicule the men who made the sacrifice.
For as long as the Vietnam veteran dwells among us, I can't see the American nation ever "getting over" Vietnam. It is a testament to the American character that we never will.
(Greg Maresca, a freelance writer, composes "Talking Points" for each Sunday edition.)