Mary E. Rogers

MY FIRST TRIP TO THE WALL

Dennis Haines: 2004
Dennis Haines: 2004

Dennis Haines: 2004
Dennis Haines: 2004

Mary Rogers: 2004
Mary Rogers: 2004

IWVPA Bronze Helmet Top Poet Award of Excellence - June 2004
Some months back I met a wonderful man. Dennis and I wrote for a long time and then we met and had lunch together a few times and spent the day together. I mentioned to him that I had never been to The Wall, but that I had an overpowering need to go there. He has been to DC many times and asked me if I would go along with him sometime. It took a while for me to agree to go with him. Even when I told him that I would, I wasn’t sure that I could go.

Dennis was shot in the head twice in Nam. He is paralyzed on one side. He has adapted to his disabilities more than seems humanly possible. He is rated 100 % disabled and still works every day, designing all new construction for a local medical center. He is also very active in helping other Veterans and gives to many worthwhile causes. On top of the disabilities, with which he is already dealing, he found out a few years back that he has Hepatitis C. He has done two rounds of treatments that he was never able to finish because he became severely anemic. He just had his third liver biopsy and this week will start treatments for the third time. That is why he wanted to go now. I can’t remember a time when I enjoyed myself more or was treated with such respect as I was this weekend. I was truly honored to spend my time in DC and be at The Wall with my “Hero”.

Living out in the country, as I do, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like being in DC. I fell in love with that place.

When we got into the terminal at DC we went to get a cab. The driver was an African American, with dreadlocks hanging down his back. As we so often do, I was quick to judge a book by its cover. I had reservations about getting into this cab. In DC everyone drives cab it seems. It appears as though they just get a license, buy a car, and do it on their own and not all cabs are affiliated with an organized company. So on the whole ride to Arlington, where we stayed, I am thinking are we really going the right way or are we going to end up on a back street… robbed or worse. Before we parted from our cab driver I was deeply shamed. As we stepped out of the cab, the man looked at Dennis and said “Vietnam?” Dennis said “Yes, you too?” With a faraway look in his eyes, that can only belong to a Vietnam Vet, he said, “Me too.” They embraced and Dennis said, “You need say no more; Welcome home brother.”

As we stepped into the lobby, there were other people at the desk. A man turned and looked at Dennis and said, “Veteran?” Dennis said, “Yes, Vietnam.” The man said he was a Vietnam era Vet and welcomed him home.

Friday night we went to the Hard Rock Cafe to eat. We had to wait on a table so we went outside for a while. I really enjoyed this place; so much life going on, such good food. As we went to leave, there was an even greater crowd waiting to get in. A young man made his way through the crowd and ask Dennis if he was a Veteran. He said, “Yes”. The young man said he is serving now. He told us of the places he had been and where he was going and was unsure of where he would be in the future. He seemed to need reassurance from Dennis. Dennis very openly talked to him and the young man seemed genuinely thankful that he had the opportunity to talk with someone who had been there.

Dennis did have a shirt on with his unit insignia on.

Saturday, we went to the Wall. I felt in my heart that I couldn’t do it and Dennis kept reassuring me that it was that way for everyone and that he would be there. The first glimpse of The Wall brought tears streaming down my face. Dennis had names that he wanted me to help him with and I had my names. As we got to the panel where Dennis knew his names were, I started helping him look.

I had brought a picture of my husband in uniform to leave at the Wall. He had served in Nam three times and died in ‘96 from a stroke. I wasn’t sure exactly where I would put it. The thought has always been in my mind how close Dennis came to being one of those names on the Wall. He told me that this is the panel his name would have been on had he died that day. I scanned the names and there was the name, Richard L. Rogers… the same as my Rich. I knew this was where I would leave the picture. I knelt down and a fresh torrent of tears came. Dennis just let me get it out; I guess he knew it’s the only way. To me it was that I was finally saying goodbye. I am not sure I ever really did that. To me it felt like I was giving him back to his brothers to care for.

As I looked down the Wall at those names, I was struck by the size of the Wall… it was not as big as I thought it would be. I thought of how little space it took to hold over 58,000 names. Then I took in the massive expanse of the park it sits in and in my mind I seen over 58,000 broken, bleeding, and battered bodies and they covered the entire park. They were not reduced to names on the Wall… but rather the reality of that many human beings was totally impacted on my mind.

Another man asked me to get a name for him… it was his best friend who was killed and that is why he enlisted. He asked me to touch his name for him and bring him a rubbing. By this time I had the overpowering feeling that some of, or maybe all of, these souls frequented this park. I felt them there. I touched the name, John H. Harding Jr. I ran my fingers slowly across the name, I quietly said, “I am here for David Williamson, he cannot come but he wanted you to know he has never forgotten you and never will.”

Tom Tharp, another Veteran asked me to get two rubbings of names of guys who was in his outfit and got killed. They were on one of the highest panels; I could not get to them. I went and got a park service guy and he got a ladder and traced them for me. I couldn’t reach them but I took a picture.

I saw men with their faces pressed to The Wall. Their tear stained cheeks touching the names of someone they couldn’t quite let go of.

We went on to Dennis’ last name. A boy from his hometown, who was shot and killed shortly before Dennis was wounded. He leaned over and slowly took his fingers over the name, saying what a shame it was. Then just talking almost to himself… remembering putting his body into a bag and how it quickly filled with blood, remembering how the blood was dripping from the bag as he helped load it in the chopper. That was the one point at The Wall when I was totally frightened. Dennis seemed to no longer be there. I could see in his face that he was reliving the entire event over again. I leaned down and hugged him and told him that in my heart I felt they were all together. We finally went on. At the end of the Wall, my tears became a cleansing stream; no longer tears of anguish but tears of a little deeper understanding. Feeling as though I had touched souls with over 58,000 wonderful heroes and they knew I was there and I cared.

Some people walk aimlessly up and down this walkway, almost as though it is just any old monument. Just to be seen as a tourist would look at any other monument. No connection to it whatsoever. Nothing there moves them, but it doesn’t matter. As you walk away you realize they are to be pitied because they did not allow themselves the honor of having acknowledged, in some way, the tragedy of it all and allowing their soul to touch the souls of many honorable men. You remember the tear stained eyes, the fingers reaching out… tracing slowly each letter of a name.

I made my closure at the Wall… I said good bye to Rich and made up my mind that I was not going to run from, or deny myself, the opportunity to be happy any longer.

On a lighter side I made the mistake of telling Dennis I wanted to see Arlington Cemetery and especially John Kennedy’s grave. If I can find any fault with DC, they need to be more handicapped accessible; even the walkway at the Wall. The middle is smooth but if you get a wheelchair into the cobblestones on the side it can be rather difficult. There are streets where you go down a ramp on one side and when you get to the other there is no ramp. Then you are right along the turning lane that is coming in, struggling to get on the sidewalk. Fortunately, Dennis has a lock leg brace and a cane with a wrist brace on it and can stand and walk but he can’t walk long distances.

Well we arrived at Arlington. I started pushing Dennis up the hill. THE HILL? This thing looked like a mountain. I’m pushing, and ready to say let’s not do this, when a man and lady and two kids come up beside us. This man pushed Dennis the whole way up… sweating, but would not let me do it at all. Before they left, the oldest son came back and asked if they could help us back down. We said no, we could make it and thanked them.

So we got up to President Kennedy’s grave and the Lee house is at the top of this “gigantic mountain” we have ascended, (exaggerated but to me that’s what it seemed to be). No Way Up! So Dennis says, “I’ll let my wheel chair here, and if you can help me I’ll hang onto you.” Up the hill (Mt. Everest) we went. Every few steps, Dennis’ leg brace would lock and I had to reach down and unlock it. We made it up, and then the question was: how do we get down? I suggested rolling Dennis into a tight ball and rolling him down “Mt Everest” but we were afraid when he got to the bottom his brace may lock and he would be jet propelled into the eternal flame at Kennedy’s grave.

I told him we would go slowly down the steps. We got part way down and we are looking where we let the wheel chair and this walkway does not lead to it. I tried to tell Dennis that I would take him down and then I would go back. BUT NO! It is that drive that has kept him alive and fighting. He says, Mary let’s just go through the grass. I said, “We are not allowed.” He says, “No, let’s just go.” So we are half way down and a guard hollers at us, “You’re not allowed in the grass.” There’s no way I’m taking Dennis back up “Mt. Everest.” Dennis yells, “We have to get my wheel chair.” He motioned us to come on and I got Dennis set down on the curb so I could go and retrieve the chair. We realized we could have been arrested. I’m thinking, “Okay, you forgive him because he is handicapped but where does that leave me?” I was fully ready to tell this young man that this handicapped vet was the instigator and I was just an unwilling participant. I got the wheel chair and Dennis informs me that he is freewheeling down “Mt Everest.” I said, “No you’re not!” So he starts going and there is no way I can hold onto him. I tried and then I said, “I sure hope you’re serious, because you’re on your own.” He took off like a streak, at one point I was ready to scream, “Look out! Get out of the Way! There’s a crazy Vietnam Vet on the loose and your about to get run over.”

We made it to the bottom; I was 10 minutes behind him. I should have ridden the wheel chair down but I didn’t think they would appreciate my screams at this sacred place. We got back to our hotel room and I was ready to collapse. Dennis made reservations at Filomena’s in Georgetown. We couldn’t get in until 9:30. I said, “Oh well, it’s our last night here so we may as well enjoy it.”

The restaurant was wonderful. From outside it looks like nothing… it is down in the basement. Dennis had his cane, not the wheelchair, so I thought, “We can make it.” We got seated and he said, “Will you have a glass of wine with me for a toast?” Neither one of us is a drinker, but I said, “Yes I will.” Well I couldn’t drink it, so Dennis drank his and mine. After eating, they brought out 2 jugs of wine, compliments of the house. One was Sambuca. NOW THIS WAS GOOD! Realizing that I could get attached to this pretty quick, I decided it was better not to lose all self control so Dennis again (the proper gentleman that he is) “graciously” drank his and mine. We forgot… the steps go up! I walked behind him, wearing heels, waiting for this “Wino” to roll back on me, laughing the whole way up the steps. We made it, but I laughed until I thought I would need some morphine for the stomach pains.

DC is not just a place of monuments and memorials, it’s not just a place to pay your respects and remember… it’s a place of healing; a place where young soldiers seek out old soldiers for strength and encouragement… it’s a place where men in dreadlocks show a moment of warmth and love to a brother… it is a place where wives of Vets who are no longer here, can say goodbye and know that it is okay to love and laugh and live once again. It is a place where brothers never fail to reach out to each other and share a feeling that only they could know and understand. It is not just The Wall that is a place of healing, it is the entire city. DC is truly a place of healing and it is a place I will never ever forget.