Even at the height of tourist season, “The Wall” is a lonely place. “Big, Black Gash” … “Wall of Shame”… these are just two of the many derogatory names applied to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial since its dedication in 1982.
But The Wall is also a place of healing. For the roughly 60 veterans who traveled there from Asheville Oct. 29 to Nov. 1, it was a physical journey of some 10 hours and 800 miles. Emotionally and spiritually, however, it was nothing less than a trip back in time.
For John Cowart, a social worker at the Asheville Veteran's Affairs Medical Center, it was his 12th time shepherding a group of clients and other veterans there. He began planning these trips after realizing that the trauma each man carried had been born in a group.
“They’re learning how to not allow anxiety and fear to dictate their lives,” he explains. “The veterans heal in relationship to each other; that’s why this trip is so powerful. … For some, the feeling is like being back in the military: a real sense of familiarity and connectedness.”
It’s also about excavating long-buried feelings. “The things we can’t talk about are the things that have the most control over our lives,” Cowart notes. “The Wall is the first memorial we’ve had that really has been a vehicle for healing. It’s a place where people can go and either leave something or perform some personal ritual that can be a part of their healing journey.”
Not just personal rituals, either. Some of the veterans making this year’s trip have been before; these repeaters help provide a deeper context for the ceremonies the groups enact each fall. “Rituals,” says Cowart, “make healing available and provide a sense of order, a sense of being emotionally available.”
During memorial services on Saturday and Sunday mornings, a Native American warrior shield is placed at The Wall. The men gather in a circle, reading off the names of friends who died in Vietnam. After each name, the group intones, “We honor this man.”
“The images that stick in my mind,” Cowart notes, “are the embraces people give to the vets, validating their service; saying, ‘Welcome home.’ The veterans find out that people do appreciate what they’ve done.”
Visiting The Wall as a group, a community, is a key step toward healing. “Each veteran,” says Cowart, “feels unique in their wretchedness: I’m so wretched, no one can ever understand me.” Being there with friends and comrades who are experiencing the same pain, the same nightmares, helps these veterans continue their journey of recovery from a trauma that often triggers feelings of isolation and abandonment.
Those feelings, notes Cowart, “are on one end of the continuum. On the other end are the risk takers — the adrenaline junkies, the veterans who continue to live on the edge.”
Those who haven’t experienced it can’t understand “the exhilaration after the firefight … the intense feeling of being alive,” Cowart explains. But the drive to recapture it “sometimes leads to risky behavior. When you’ve been a crew chief on a chopper, the best job you can get in civilian life doesn’t give you meaning or purpose.”
Following the memorial services, there’s time to see the sites before heading back to Asheville early Monday morning. For these veterans, it’s all part of learning to embrace life again; feeling the anxiety stirred up by the journey yet choosing to go anyway can be therapeutic, Cowart explains.
“When you get a sense of mastering something you didn’t think you could do, it feels good: If I can make this trip, maybe I can do more.”
— Vietnam veteran Jerry Nelson lives in Asheville. His book of photos from the trip, Autumn in D.C.: A Sacred Journey,” is due out later this month. To learn more, go to http://JourneyAmerica.org.