The Memoirs of Sgt. Robert Wheatley, USAF Security Service
That Fourth of July celebration had only been a beginning, a beginning that prodded me into action. Four years had passed since that catharsis at The Downs in Santa Fe. In the intervening years, I established an internet web site as a tool for a first, tentative reaching out to other veterans of a war we all had tried so hard for so long to forget. I explored other veteran's web sites and began to make email contact with veteran's groups. Those first feelers led me to a nascent organization called the TLCB, the "Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Brotherhood." There, I found the understanding of like minded vets and a kind of understanding and camaraderie I had not experienced since my days in the military. After thirty long years of isolation, it was an important step in the healing process. The following is the story of the next big step in that process - a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, otherwise simply known by Vietnam vets and the public as "The Wall."
The Healing Wall....
I had always heard, a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC is an experience with the power to heal - power to heal and to make peace with the ghosts of the past. I must admit, I had some doubts. But thirty long years after my discharge from the Air Force, I finally mustered the courage and determination to go there and find out for myself. The occasion was a reunion of Vietnam veterans who had served in what would later become known as "The Secret War", the little known part of the Vietnam War that was waged outside the borders of South Vietnam in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
Saturday evening began with a dinner at a local Chinese restaurant, where we had reserved a room for our sizable group. There, old friendships were renewed and new ones were forged. Between trips to the buffet, war stories, tall tales, and other reminiscences, were shared amongst the members of the TLCB, the Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia Brotherhood. By the time we had all finished our meal, the intermittent rain showers that had drenched the city in late afternoon, once again ended, this time for good. Watching the rain through the window as it fell from the gray overcast, I had worried that it would put a damper on the eveningís planned outdoor activities. Oh, the rain was undeniably needed, and most of the city was rejoicing for it. They were in the midst of a prolonged drought and had not seen rain for weeks. But this was an evening we had anticipated for so long! "Today of all days, why couldnít the weather cooperate?" I complained to myself. "Was that being selfish? Was that too much to ask?" But then, as if directed by some all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent being, the rains stopped just as we prepared to leave the restaurant. In reality though, the rain had been a blessing for the TLCB too. For it made what had been an almost unbearably hot, humid mid-August afternoon into an evening that was a fair bit more tolerable. It was to be an evening we would not soon forget.
We boarded the chartered busses for the highlight of our reunion - the placing of a memorial wreath at The Wall. It was in remembrance of the lives and service of all those who had made that ultimate sacrifice in the "Secret War" in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. On the bus, the lively chatter that had gone on at the restaurant continued during the ride, at least initially. But I noticed the mood of the group palpably changed and became more sombre as we neared The Vietnam Memorial Park. The conversation finally fell mostly silent, as each man engaged in a wrestling match with his own personal ghosts of the past. Before the busses had pulled up to park, I found myself choking back the tears, attempting to swallow the huge lump in my throat, as old memories rose up from the deep recesses of my mind, looming terribly immediate and real in my consciousness.
The wreath we were placing would occupy a position before the panel bearing the names of the airmen who died in a fiery crash of an F-4 Phantom jet at the Udorn Air Base. Disabled by enemy ground fire on a reconnaissance run over Northern Laos, the pilot of the aircraft, in an heroic effort, had managed to urge his badly damaged jet back to its home base at Udorn. At the last moment, the aircraft lost all hydraulics, and the pilot and his "GIB" (guy in back) were forced to eject. Under power, the jet came screaming in low over the hooches that were used as housing for the troops on base, clipping rooftops along the way and raining great flaming curtains of burning JP4 jet fuel down over the streets below. The plane finally careened off the runway and plowed into a nearby building. Nine souls perished in the ensuing explosion and fireball.
For many of our group, this would be our first visit to The Wall to confront those and other ghosts from that war. But on this, the occasion of our reunion, we would at least have each other to lean on - safety in numbers, you know. Upon disembarking, we gathered on the walk leading to The Wall and were led in a prayer by the Air Force chaplain who was to preside over the ceremony. Then, as the evening sun sank inexorably toward the horizon came the moment that many of us had both anticipated and yes, in a way, dreaded for so long. It was time now to take those last few steps, to stand before The Wall and there, upon that sacred altar, unburden ourselves and perhaps divest the sorrow borne within all these long years since the war.
We followed along behind the bearers and the Chaplain, as the wreath on its stand was carried with tender loving care to the position it would occupy before the panel bearing the names of those who lost their lives in the fatal crash at Udorn. The walkway was somewhat crowded that evening, as I understand it always is. But with no words spoken, other visitors to The Wall cleared way and stood back, respectfully watching in silence as our procession approached. As I glanced up and saw the faces of the crowd, I was almost shocked by the looks of empathy and sadness in the eyes of the onlookers. Most of them I saw were too young to have been involved in the war themselves. It gave me food for thought. These certainly were not the looks of indifference, hatred and disrespect so many of us had faced on our return from Southeast Asia. Had the passage of time really made so much difference? Could time really heal all wounds?
The wreath was placed and dedicated, followed by a long moment of complete silence. No one uttered a sound, as we paid respect to our fallen Brothers in Arms. It was as if the world had stopped for that moment in time, in awe of the sacrifice of these men whom we had come here to honor. Everyone, even the small children present, knew that what was going on here was sacred. A young woman, apparently Vietnamese, stood nearby, sobbing and shaking, tears running down her face. Silently, a member of our group reached out to her and squeezed her hand, comforting her in our shared sorrow. Finally, each man came forward to stand before the wreath and think his private thoughts and leave a note tucked into the flowers to the men who died in the Secret War and to all the others whose names grace that hallowed wall.
Afterward, there were hugs and tears, then we broke into smaller groups to tour the park or to take wall rubbings and to further reminisce on things long past. Iíll never forget the emotion that swept over me, as Suzi, my daughter, knelt at panel 45W and took a rubbing for me there. It was the name of Tech Sergeant Paul E Yonkie, the flight engineer on the C-141 medevac who was killed in the July, '68 sapper attack on the Udorn Air Base. My heart was fairly bursting with love and pride for my little girl. A grown woman now, here she was taking a name of a man who had been my contemporary, but a man who had died years before she was born. "Could it really have been that long ago?" I thought to myself, "My God! Where has the time gone?" But for all the years gone by, there still was no peace. Still, something was missing...
And then it happened. A small group of us had been standing before the bronze statue of the three soldiers that overlooks the field where The Wall stands. We were dressed in the fatigue uniforms we had worn in Southeast Asia. Suddenly, a man approached, perhaps in his mid thirties. Taking each of our hands in turn, he vigorously shook them them, all the while saying, "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for serving!" Taken completely by surprise, we were totally speechless. All we could think to say was. "Youíre welcome!" It was so unexpected - unexpected and so very different from the attitudes that had greeted us on our return from the war. I donít think that man could possibly have realized the impact those few simple words would have. For those words, which cost the speaker so little to utter, were worth far more than gold to us. They were after all, exactly what had been missing all this time!
For a very long time in America, it seemed all anyone wanted to do was forget that war. But finally, on that warm August evening thirty-plus years after my return home, there before The Healing Wall it was demonstrated to me at last, there are those who do truly care, remember, and genuinely appreciate our sacrifice. The events of that evening were indeed healing balm for me and my compatriots. But I found the healing would come not so much from The Wall itself, but from the love and caring of those who conceived it and worked so hard to bring it into existence, and from the caring of the thousands who come there every day to pay homage. That stranger and those in the crowd at The Wall had given us all on a personal level, something we had been longing for all these years Ė something to fill that empty space in our hearts. It was the only thing we ever really wanted in return for our service - the honor and appreciation of a grateful nation. We found it there that evening, expressed in the eyes of those onlookers at The Wall, in the tears of a lone Vietnamese woman, and in a simple, sincere "Thank-you" from a stranger. Though the painful memories will always remain, perhaps now at last we can really begin to close the wounds left by that war and find true healing.
Robert E Wheatley
Sgt., USAF Security Service
Air Force Detachment 4,
6922 Security Wing, USAFSS
"Ramasun" ~ 7th Radio Research Field Station
Call sign "Cobra 7"
Nong Soong / Udorn, Thailand
December, 1967 - October, 1968
Copyright May, 1998 by Robert E Wheatley, all rights reserved.