WASHINGTON D.C., DC — They walked or rolled slowly in wheelchairs past the polished stone face of the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
As the Honor Flight Maine veterans looked into the names of those killed in the Vietnam War, the veterans’ own reflections looked back at them.
It’s part of the genius of that monument, the faces of the living forever united in stone, with the names of the dead.
Several of the Vietnam veterans on this Honor Flight trip had never visited the wall before. Merle Emberton, a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, said he had deliberately avoided the wall for years.
“I’ve been in the Washington area before and have avoided it because I didn’t want to be saddened by it,” Emberton said, shortly before the Honor Flight buses rolled up at the memorial site. "It’s hard to get over the loss of a lot of friends, and once you get over it you don’t want to sit there and cry again.”
Emberton said he had a list of names of friends and Marine buddies who died in Vietnam, but left it home on purpose.
“And though they were like friends, they were like brothers to me," he said. "The Marine Corps, we’re like brothers. We all serve each other and protect each other.”
Later, he did not say if he still picked out specific names but said the wall was emotional, though he did not cry.
Others did, touching names on the wall, looking for others, and remembering those they lost.
Honor Flight Maine trips celebrate the service of veterans and are often filled with people saying thank you to the vets.
But there are also sobering reminders that those in the military have sometimes had to pay a heavy price.
That reminder is brought home by seeing the solemn, dignified changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The message is felt even more strongly at the Vietnam wall.
On the opposite side the Lincoln Memorial, that same message is sent by the Korean War Memorial, though fewer people are there to see it.
The Korean War is still considered by many to have been America’s “forgotten war," despite the fact that more than 33,000 American service members were killed in Korea.
Navy veteran Joe Scarborough, who served on a destroyer along the Korean coast, said the Vietnam War has overshadowed the brutal Korean conflict.
“And we had heavy casualties, Marines and Army especially," he said. "And it wasn’t declared as a war so it gets largely forgotten.”
Fred Collins, an Army combat engineer who has visited the Korean memorial before, said he hasn’t forgotten his time in Korea, either.
“I think of the guys that never came back,” Collins said, choking back tears. “It’s always on your mind, because you think you’re so lucky you did come home."
But this time he traveled home with a different and better memory, after the Korean War veteran, wearing a hat with that logo, met two Korean teenage girls, just a short distance away from the memorial to that war.
“They came down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, came over and put their arms around me. I said [he used a Korean language greeting] and they said, ‘Wow, thanks very much.’ They were thankful, those people went through a lot.”
Collins is one of several Honor Fight Maine veterans who said they were thanked by Korean families for freeing their country from the Communists 70 years ago.