A Night to Remember – The Vietnam Wall
Slice Of Life
By – Sheri de Grom

I did not want to travel to Washington, DC. Nor did I want to contemplate the endless possibilities for career advancement about which everyone discussed ad nauseam. At the MONTEREY BAY - WICKIPEDAtime, my husband and I were living a stone’s throw from the breathtaking Pacific of the central coast of California.

My career track with the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate (OSJA) was already set before me and I could climb the proverbial ladder of success from where I was. I’d already written legislation and shepherded it through both houses of Congress before I became a member of the Judge Advocate General.

We were ten years away from serious discussions of the possibility of Fort Ord’s closing. Everyone said it wouldn’t happen.

I was the newest professional member of the OSJA team and no one wanted to attend a required week-long conference in DC,  not in the heat and humidity of summer. I’d only been a member of the team for three months.

I was ordered to go to the conference. I don’t remember much about the lectures except they bored me beyond reason for a full week.AWFUL CONFERENCE

Planned night-time activities were non-existent. Everyone went their own way at the end of the day. It was unlike any gathering of professionals of which I’d ever been a part. Did I have a big sign pointing to me that read, “Newbie?”

What I do remember is how naïve I was. Forget my advanced college degrees, forget my world travel experience and every thread of common sense I might have ever had. I look back and shudder when I remember how fearless and determined I’d been.

I wanted to see some of DC before I returned to Monterey. At the very least I had to see the Vietnam Memorial.

The wall was at the top of my places to visit. I knew it would be an emotional experience. The Vietnam Conflict claimed the life of my first husband and twin brothers. That conflict sure seemed like a war to me.

The hotel concierge had gone for the day and I asked the desk clerk the best way to get to the memorial. He pushed himself away from the counter and said, “You can’t get to the Mall. Not this time of night.”

I didn’t understand. “I don’t want to go to a mall; I want to see the Vietnam Memorial.”

“Lady, that’s where the memorial is, on the Mall and you can’t get there tonight.”

Confused, I said, “Thank you,” and returned to my room. I had a guidebook and, after consulting it, I understood what the desk clerk had said.

Studying the metro maps, it seemed simple enough to get from the hotel to the memorial. What I didn’t consider was the time of night and that I’d be alone. I’d never been afraid for myself but I’d never been alone in metropolitan DC at night.

Taking just enough cash for metro tickets and a taxi to and from the metro, I checked my jewelry, cash and wallet into the hotel safe.

God was with me that night as I bought my first ticket after ten p.m. in an empty metroMETRO AT NIGHT tunnel. Without a doubt, He was with me the entire time I was away from the hotel.

Two metro changes later, I popped up out of the ground at the Foggy Bottom Metro Stop. The night was black but it was also crystal clear and my path glimmered ahead of me.

I walked alone, but not alone, next to the reflecting pool on that hot summer night all those years ago. A calmness enveloped me that I haven’t often known. Life seemed simple, unreal. I was where I shouldn’t be – and yet I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

The Vietnam Memorial had tugged at my heart from a far away place for too many years. I vietnam-veterans-memorial-2could not leave DC without having paid my proper respects. I’d lost far too many loved ones to that useless conflict. Seen far too many coffins lowered into the ground. I’d been presented with my very own folded flag along with the “Gratitude from a grateful nation.” In short, I had to visit The Wall.

I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact I felt as I rounded the far end of the memorial. Lights reflected off the black granite gently illuminating the endless sea of names that stretched out in front of me.

I witnessed what I’d only read about before: combat boots at the base of The  Wall, fresh flowers, photographs, letters and other memorabilia. I’d arrived at The Wall that night with my heart in my hands for the three men I’d loved and lost.

I knew about the books where you could look up the names to find their exact location. I wasn’t ready for that step just yet. I’d had enough reality for one visit. I left.

Feeling the marble as I reached the steps of the Lincoln Memorial eased my burdens a bit. I sat at the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that night and remembered the years that had come before and thought about the life I had yet to live.

My grandmother was fond of saying; God takes care of babies and fools. I’m sure she would have placed me in the fool category that particular night. Later when I told her the story of my midnight visit to the memorial, we hugged and cried for the grandsons and my husband. She was a brave woman, a prairie woman, and we both agreed the Vietnam Conflict was a waste from the beginning.

I’ve remembered that particular night from long ago with clarity when I’ve forgotten so many others. I believe it will stay in my heart for the remainder of my days.

About Sheri de Grom

Retired Fed/JAG, 5 yrs. on Capitol Hill. Former book buyer for B and N. Concerned citizen of military drawdown. Currently involved in mental healthcare reform, health care strategist and actively pursuing legislative change wherein dual retirees are exempt from enrolling in Medicare at their own discretion without losing tertiary healthcare benefits. Monitor and comment on Federal Register proposed legislation involving Mental Health, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Medicare and rural libraries. Licensed OSHA Inspector to include Super Fund sites. Full time caregive to Vietnam era veteran. Conceptualized, investigated possible alternatives, authored, lobbied for, and successfully implemented Title X, Section 1095 (known as the Third Party Collection Program of Federal Insurance).
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  1. huntmode says:

    Sheri, I think God and your loved and loving ghosts were with you this night and always with you when you went to the Wall. There is something tangibly holy in the air and black granite. Thank you for writing this and sharing of your heart, the healing needed for you, may the peace continue to grow within you. HuntMode

    • Huntie – Thank you for taking the time to comment and read with me. I’ll never forget the anguish of the Vietnam War (the only conflict was in my heart). I knew I had to go to The Wall that night. During the time we lived in DC, I’d often take a picnic lunch and spend it with Don at the wall. Tom would join me, every now and then. After all, he’s of the Vietnam era also.

  2. ksbeth says:

    i’m so sorry for your loss sheri, and like you, i was moved to a level that was totally unexpected when i stood before the memorial. i was struck by the absolute silence, as a light wind blew over the top. i stood there with silent tears as i read the notes and memorials and names left behind. thank you for sharing this.

  3. This was a very intense and moving post Sheri, thank you for sharing it with us.

  4. Jane Sadek says:

    You’re a bit of a pioneer woman your own self!

    • Jane – I’ve always wished I’d saved some letterhead Senator Robert Kennedy had his secretary make up for me. It was wonderful and made me laugh every time I used it to correspond with him. We worked on mental health legislation together. The heading of the letterhead read, “Not your ordinary Cowley County Kansas Farm Girl.” Then all down the side she had a prarie women with a winchester rifle pointed at birds in flight.

  5. atempleton says:

    Your story bring tears to my eyes. The spirit of your loved ones were with you that night.

  6. Robyn Lee says:

    Sheri I could feel the intensity of this experience in your writing. I was there and visited myself many years ago. I will never forget the overwhelming emotion and sorrow I felt. This post reminded me of what we should never forget. I agree, the Vietnam conflict – such a sad waste from the start… Blessings dear friend ~ x Robyn

  7. Hello – Thank you for stopping in to visit. I cannot imagine a more fitting memorial than the one that stands to reflect the horrors of the Vietnam Conflict and all that was lost there. I’d seen pictures of the memorial but I think until you actually stand in front of the memorial, it’s impossible to gain the full perspective of what the artist intended to convey.

  8. adinparadise says:

    I have visited this memorial, but in daylight, and although I have hadn’t suffered a personal loss, it moved me beyond words to realise just how many precious lives were honoured there, and how many families had been devastated by the loss of loved ones.

  9. What a self-memorial on paper! The emotional embracing of the experience is holy. You’ve lived so many smooth but rocky terrains ! God has never left you two!

  10. Oh my dear, sweet friend. My tears are for you and your lost loves, but also for every soul taken from us because of a ‘conflict’. Too many lives gone too soon. What a lovely, touching post. When I visit DC, I’ll be sure to see the memorial and send up a prayer for all those men and women, and also for babies and fools.

  11. Denise Hisey says:

    You painted a very vivid picture, Sheri. I can see why these images have stuck with you for so long. Thank you for sharing them.

  12. Patty B says:

    I hope in some way the wall brought some healing for you. I will never forget when Tom took me and we placed flowers under Rays name. To this day my brother in law has yet to go – his wounds are the ones that run deep and leave scars on the inside. This was a beautiful story and a tribute to the men you love.

    • Hello Patty – It’s good to see you here, my friend. You as a military wife know of what I speak. Making that journey to the memorial was the best thing I could have done for myself. My life had moved on but a piece of that 21 year old widow had always clung to me. It was finally time to allow her to rest and know that none of what had happened was my fault. The wall is an incredible place to begin the healing process.

      • Patty B says:

        That is what Tom said too….he always felt a bit guilty because Ray died there while he was station in Naples with the NATO forces.

  13. sfreydont says:

    I’ve stood before that wall many times in the past, and it was not only the power of the names of the dead, but the “survivors” who came to say farewells, or hellos, or who just came to hang out with friends no longer here. Many who had been marginalized and ignored. As much an indictment as those names on the wall.

    • Shelly – Thank you so much for stopping in to read with me. After my first 10 or 12 initial visits to the wall and could actually pull out of myself – I was able to start people watching and then later, I’d take what I lovingly call my ‘Out of Africa’ picnic basket packed with snacks, cold drinks, etc. and find a comfortable spot. Often parents, friends, brothers and sisters, widows, and the list goes on would join me and we formed an informal group that found comfort in each other. Our one common link was that we had lost someone to the war (and often the name wasn’t etched on the wall). These families had lost their loved ones to drugs, alcohol, homelessness, untreated mental diagnosis wherein veterans were tossed out of care. From my first visit to the wall, it was almost 10 years before my career moved me to DC and then I was really able to plug into the culture surrounding those that were truly at a loss of where to turn next.

  14. Terry says:

    I don’t know why but when I was reading about your walk by the wall I started tearing up. I felt your emotions, I felt what men and women feel when they read the names of their loved ones. I feel honored to even be able to consider you a friend as you represent so much in this world we travel through. Big hugs for a fantastic post Sheri

    • Terry – Thank you for the lovely comment. We of a kindered spirit understand and when we can, we help carry the burdens of others when they need that extra boost to get them through the day. After I posted this blog, I was able to get out momentos I hadn’t looked at it almost 30 years. I’ve moved them all over the world with me and always knew exactly what was inside. A photo album of a young girl and the handsome flight officer that loved flying on our wedding day. My first husband served 2 tours in Vietnam and unlike our service members now, he had to get a special waver to do so. Now our men and women are being deployed 8 and 9 times. I have many other momentos – our first officers ball wherein my husband presented his new bride to the military installation (and I wondered how I’d ever fit in because everyone else seemed so sophisticated and I was still working on my undergraduate degree. This period of my life almost seems like a different life time ago. And, as always, thank you for reading with me.

  15. As always Sheri, your posts about your life are so heartfelt. We in Canada today are mourning the destruction of half the town of Lac-Mégantic in Québec. Your post reminded me that war and tragedy go hand in hand, leaving the survivors to try and pick up the pieces of their hearts and lives … even many years later.

    • Mary – Tom and I have been thinking of you and Jacques. Each time the news comes on, he’ll turn and ask me, “Have you heard from your friend Mary? Are they okay? How far away are they from this tragedy?” Of course I have all of the same questions. You and I both are well aware of how it hurts to pick up the remaining pieces of our hearts and lives years later and attempt to put them back together again. Thank you, my friend, for stopping in and reading with me today.

  16. Wow, what a beautiful story, Sheri. The picture of The Wall and The Lincoln Memorial are lovely, especially the silver glow off the surface at night. It’s so sad that you lost so many close members of your family in that war and if I ever get to DC I’ll want to experience that visit as well. This made me so sad.

    • Patti – I encourage you and your family to visit DC and take in the sites of all the memorials. Each one is stunning in its own right. It’s a beautiful way to bring history to life. Plus, the Smithstonians are still free (most days) unless they’ve brought in a special exhibit. Of course I’ll always favor the Vietnam Memorial but sometimes I would take an entire weekend (while we lived there) and pick out maybe just two places to visit which allowed me to really explore each museum and monument and learn about the structure and the people it represented. There really is something for everyone. We lived in DC a little over 5 years and I still have more I want to see and experience.

  17. Mae Clair says:

    Sheri, you are a brave soul indeed. Had a desk clerk told me what that man told you, I almost certainly would have abandoned my plans for the night. Perhaps you were foolish for doing what you did, but the commitment of your heart to those you lost shines through in this blog post. What a treasured, emotional memory you have. Thank you for sharing something that was clearly special for you.

    • Good Morning, my friend. You’ve been with me from my very first blog. Much as churned through my mind since Dec 1911 when I first started blogging. Ideas weave their way into my head and then I have to let them rest there for a good long while before I’m able to let them go public. There was something magical about walking along the reflecting pool as I approached the Vietnam Memorial – as if I were being prepared for what I decided I must face once and for all. I’ll never regret that I went alone. I needed that time to experience emotions I’d still not come to grips with although I’d moved on with my life, in my own way. The Memorial is absolutely stunning at night and I’m pleased that I viewed it alone and at night with the moon hung from above. The memorial is indeed a lasting contribution to all who served and lost their lives.

  18. NotDownOrOut says:

    As someone who lived 18 years in DC and lived 7-8 of them near the Foggy Bottom subway stop (it actually was not opened until sometime in the middle of those 7-8 years and about 6 years before the wall was built), I agree you were in the hands of God if you went to the Vietnam Memorial and then to the Lincoln Memorial in the middle of the night. We never walked there at night. On one occasion we walked in a large group from the GWU campus as close to that location as the State Department building, and we encountered two or three very suspicious characters. While at the Vietnam Memorial you would have been under the watch of some of the many veterans who have made it their mission to stand watch, but before and afterward . . . .

    I am saddened by the thought of your loss of a husband and brothers to that war, any war. My cousins were old enough to be drafted. Neither was called to serve, but it ensured that the war had my attention. The first time I saw the memorial it was emotional, and I lacked your profound personal context. You and your family have certainly served the nation in many capacities. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifices. I wish the incredible sacrifices had not been necessary and that they had never happened.

    • Cheryl – I’m with you. I’m tired of war. I’ve never believed that we need war to make our economy go round and round. War only sends us deeper into debt and each one seems to be more expensive and more deadly than the war that went before. When I started actually living in DC and individuals started telling me places I absolutely should not go at night – imagine how hard I had to work to maintain my composure not to say a word about walking the Mall grounds one night several years earlier – near mid-night! I don’t recommend it, but I will say, I’ve never been more at peace than I was that night all those years ago when I was finally able to kneel at the wall and say goodbye one last time.

  19. Sheri, you know I share a deep emotional tie to this subject. Not because I know a name on the wall. Not that I am a Boomer and saw too many boys taken from their mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends much too early … but because this “conflict” … the concrete memory of Vietnam defines my generation. I have often wondered how long it would be before you told this story. I am deeply touched that you have and thank you 🙂

    • Hi Florence – I also wondered how long it would be before I could send this story out to the world and say yes, this is the end result. Our world isn’t a better place, freedoms weren’t gained and Vietnam was a war and not a conflict. The scars run deep for hundreds of thousands of families living through the traumas caused by this war each and every day. Please tune in Thu for a positive influence on a few soldiers returning from Vietnam all those years ago.

  20. johncoyote says:

    I saw the WW2 graveyards of Soldiers. I stood in a Fort Hood church. Where on every wall were men names killed in the many wars. We need places like the Vietnam Memorial to remind us freedom isn’t free.

  21. gdwest123 says:

    That was a really interesting and touching blog Sheri. It was obviously a very emotional time for you, the photo is so impressive. Reminds me of the first world war graves in northern France. It was a terrible war and I’m so sorry you lost your first husband and brothers. You’ve made many people stop and think and remember the brave men who died in such terrible circumstances.

    • Hello and thank you for taking time out of your schedule to read with me. I was at an interesting place in my life when I visited the wall for the first time. I’d put the tragedies of the Vietnam Conflict behind me the best way I knew how. Here I was all these years later and I’d never visited D.C. before and knew I ‘had’ to visit ‘the wall’ before returning to California. I understand what you mean about visiting the war graves in France. I’ve spent many years working abroad and have always been amazed how tenderly citizens of host countries cared for American cemeteries and received zero compensation. Once my career moved me to DC, I fell in love with all of the monuments but the ‘Wall’ became my touchstone with reality.

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