The Wall in Washington

Air Force Capt. Mary Klinker |

“What do you say when you see a soldier returning from Iraq or Afghanistan?” I always ask my young tour groups before I take them to the Vietnam Memorial.  They almost always shout out, “Thank you for your service!” Yep, that’s a gratitude that we have become familiar with in the past 20 years.  I then share with them that those words were not heard by our soldiers coming back from southeast Asia 50 years ago.   And I should know, since I had classmates and friends who served in Vietnam. My cousin’s name is engraved on the “Wall” just a few lines from the name of my brother-in-law’s close friend.   

One evening, as I led a group of high school students from the mid-west around the National Mall, I asked, “Do any of you have a family member whose name is on the Wall?”  A young man raised his hand.  So, I told him to download the Vietnam Veterans Memorial app on his phone and search for the name’s location. Then, as we continued to walk toward the “Wall,” I shared more facts about the number of names (more than 58,000) and the symbols by each name that indicate whether or not the soldier was KIA or MIA  (a diamond and a cross). The names are in chronological order according to date of death and designed so that the first and last deaths meet in the middle of the wall.  And then I always share that there are 8 women’s names on the Vietnam Wall, all nurses.   

As we neared the long black granite structure, the young man rushed up to me holding his cell phone and shouting, “I found her name.”  


“HER name?” I was surprised. “Your relative is one of the 8 women on the wall?”  He told me it was his grandfather’s sister and showed me her picture.  I noted that her name was engraved on the last section, those killed at the end of the war.  Standing near that area was a little gray haired lady volunteer.  When I requested a pencil and paper so the young man could get a rubbing, she immediately asked for which name. And I told her Mary Klinker.  

“Mary’s name is over here,” she said and pointed. “You know that she was the only Air Force nurse on the wall, don’t you?”  The young man shook his head.  “You know how Mary died, don’t you?” she asked.  He said he did.  Then she proceeded to share with the rest of our group that Mary was helping with the airlift of orphans out of Vietnam at the end of the war.   Unfortunately, the plane she was on crashed shortly after take-off and burst into flames.  Many of those on board were evacuated, but Mary was not. She died in the crash.  

Those of us standing by were swallowing hard and feeling a bit emotional.  The voluntee

r continued, “There are people who come to the wall once in a while and want to see Mary’s name.”  I was sure that the young man didn’t know that and would share it with his family when he got home.  But then our volunteer added.  “A couple of years ago a man from Portland, Oregon was here and wanted to know where her name was.  I showed him.”  She paused and then added, “He had been one of the orphans.”  


Since that day 3 years ago, I never take a group to the Vietnam Wall without sharing that story. One night I had a group of middle schoolers from the Bronx, who were so moved by it, that a couple of the young girls began sobbing.  I’d never had a reaction that strong before and apologized to their teacher.  “Don’t apologize,” he replied, ”you just made this real for them.”  

Of all the memorials on the mall in Washington D.C., I think Vietnam is the most emotional.  Designed by Maya Lin for a class project during her senior year at Yale, her professor suggested she enter it in the national design competition. It was selected from over 1400 entries.  Once a friend visited the wall and, as she looked at the names, she remarked that she could see her own reflection.  And it’s true that, when you look at that black granite in a certain light, you can see yourself.   Those of us of a certain age may not have served in the military. In fact, some may have protested the war.  But that reflection of our own face in the wall is a reminder that it was our war too.    

“The next time you see someone wearing a “Vietnam Veteran” hat or jacket, I hope that you will thank them,” I always suggest to my groups.  Since veterans occasionally can be seen walking near the wall, I’ve had the blessing of watching that happen.   I remember once as my tour was ending and some young students saw a vet in a wheelchair. They rushed over and all said, “Thank you for your service.”   He smiled.    

“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” Robert E. Lee