Wall tribute stirs painful memories

CNJ STAFF

With today’s arrival of the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Ronald Dickson’s emotions are mixed, and he doesn’t know if he’s ready to face what 40 years of time and distance have pushed beneath the surface.

It wasn’t all bad. He learned a trade, experienced camaraderie and grew as a person. But he also saw things he doesn’t want to remember and felt the sting of the anti-war protests when he came home.

The Clovis resident likened his Vietnam experience to a splinter under the skin.

“If you’ve got something deep down, you’ve got to deal with it. I’ve grown a lot of gristle around it and that way you don’t think about it,” he said. “I think that this wall coming to town may pull some of that gristle back and bring back some feelings.”

It was March 1968 when he went to Vietnam. A volunteer Navy “Seabee,” Dickson served with a construction battalion in the central coastal city of Da Nang.

The battalion traveled into the surrounding jungles to build runways, fuel depots and buildings. The primary dangers they encountered were mortar fire, rockets and landmines, he said.

But the unit was strong and determined to do its job. Many of its members even tried to stay for additional tours.

“We had a job to do and we just got out there and did it,” he said.

Television and news images trickled into Vietnam, leaving Dickson and his buddies shocked to see the growing resentment and protests in the U.S. “At the time I felt like (the protesters) kind of stabbed me in the back. Instead of supporting us, it felt like they were fighting us.”

For Dickson, memories of Vietnam are bittersweet. “I guess that I personally can’t say that I had a bad experience over there,” he said.

“(But) there was a lot of experiences that I wouldn’t want to go back to,” he said, his voice strained with emotion.

In many ways that’s how he feels about visiting the traveling wall. He wants to visit; he wants to honor those who gave their lives; but facing the memories is hard.

“It brings back a lot of memories and some good, but I don’t know of anything good back in the war. It reminds me of the people that gave their lives. It’s a tough thing,” he said, his voice unsteady.

“I guess it’s kind of like going to a cemetery and for me personally, I have to be in the right frame of mind.”

Dickson is not alone. Organizers ensure the wall is available 24-hours a day while it is on display to offer veterans and families the privacy and the time they need to honor the memory of those who died.

An 80-percent size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., 58,253 names of Vietnam casualties stretch across 370 feet of wall.

Dickson likely will be one of those who makes his pilgrimage a private one, avoiding the ceremonies and speeches out of a desire to wage his internal battle in solitude.

“Certainly it’s nothing negative; it has to do with me,” he said.

Events schedule

The American Veterans Traveling Tribute will be at Clovis High School today through Tuesday. It is open 24 hours a day.

Thursday
4 p.m. — Escort of AVTT Exhibit to Clovis High School
4:30 p.m. — Welcoming ceremonies

Friday
8 a.m. — Clovis High football
players construct the traveling wall on the high school band field
4:30 p.m. — Opening ceremonies

Saturday
Noon — Midday ceremony. Commander Col. Timothy Leahy from Cannon Air Force Base will read names of those who died in the line of duty
6 p.m. — Candlelight ceremony

Sunday
2:30 p.m. — Motorcycle ride to the Traveling Wall from High Plains Harley-Davidson.
3 p.m. — Non-denominational church ceremony