It all really began, of course, when I left Vietnam and went home in 1969. You know the situation-out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Thirty Three years later, in October, 2002 my counselor/team-leader at the Vet Center, Ken Hall in Prescott, AZ, called and invited me to go on the journey to the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, on Veteran's Day Weekend the following month...a healing journey for those veterans who were recommended by their counselors as being ready for this trip. The program is called OPERATION FREEDOM BIRD. Every year a group of Vietnam veterans are invited to fly to Washington with all expenses paid and given a chance for the first-time visit to the Wall.
I'd been in counseling for four years off and on, and being a fairly successful businessman, I had no clue as to how much I needed a deeper healing...but my wife kept confronting my behavior and I listened to her. When Ken invited me on this trip, I was honored and excited, so I began talking to my buddies about it. One buddy, Chris Delviche, had been in the armored Calvary squadron of the 9th infantry division unity in `67/'68 and he asked me to look up some names for him because he'd never been to the Wall either. I said I'd do that for him, and he gave me a handwritten list of several names...one of them I couldn't read, so I had him print it out on the side for me; that name was Rollie Northouse.
On Saturday, Nov. 9, 2002, I made it to the airport, and got onto the Southwest Airlines flight with 46 other vets and four V.A. counselors, and headed out for Baltimore, MD. We got to the hotel about 9:30 PM, had dinner and went to the Wall to do a night-walk. At the Wall, we were hanging around the "3 Soldier" area, waiting to see who'd be the first to walk down to the Wall. My team buddy Victor Combs, and I started down together, him looking for his buddy, me, just looking. As we began down the granite path, the Wall to our left, it was totally awesome...as if our buddies were there, speaking to us, saying, "Come on; you're welcome here."
At panel 35 we found his friend, and at the same time we put our hands on the Wall and it was warm, like it was waiting, ready for us. I said I'd better get to looking up my buddies so I wouldn't be in a jam on Sunday. I looked at the book of names, which was totally overwhelming, when someone said go up to the Ranger station where they have a computer, which will tell you which panel and row. I did that, and had six names to look up, but only found five-so I am assuming that one is still alive.
Next, I started looking up the names on the list Chris had given me, and got down to the one that he had to clarify for me, Rollie Northhouse, when Jim, the ranger, said he could not believe what he was seeing. Jim said this guy's mother had just been there working in the booth, and she'd just left to go down to the podium-she was one of the Gold-Star Mothers and in charge of reading of the names of the soldiers lost in the war. Jim told me that this mother had been looking for someone who had known her son for thirty-four years, and he wanted me to meet her.
At about midnight when the booth was closing, Jim, Vic and I walked down to the staging area, and Jim introduced me to Valerie May, Rollie's mother. When I told her that I had information on someone who knew her son, her face lit up and she got tears in her eyes....I think I did to. We talked a bit, and planned to get back together again on Sunday.
We met on Sunday and exchanged addresses and phone numbers. Trish Kinney with Operation Freedom Bird took the candid photographs of this special reunion. Valerie, Rollie's mother, said she'd been searching everywhere for 34 years to find someone who'd known her son. My buddy had been tight with Rollie all through Basic, and he had been with Rollie when he got hit.
Things were getting busy for her, so I continued on with finding my own buddies, talking to them, via the Wall, and somehow doing my healing. Jim, the ranger, said, "Man, I don't know where you came from, but you've given this woman the most hope she's ever had in finding out what happened to her son, and getting the closure she's been needing for so long."
We left the Wall on Tuesday, going home to Phoenix, and a Welcome Home Celebration like I'd never had before, compliments of Southwest Airlines, and this time I actually had someone to come home to, my wife.
That Friday night I went to the car show to find my friend and fellow gearhead, Chris, and I gave him the rubbings and pictures of his buddies names on the Wall, and I said, "Here's a card; I want you to call this woman." He said, "Who is she?" and I said, "Rollie's mother---and she's waiting to hear from you." He looked at me, stunned; he couldn't believe that he would be the man who could help bring closure to her son's death.
The next Tuesday, Chris called me to say that he'd talked to Valerie for 2-3 hours. She learned through Chris of two other buddies of her son who live near her in Michigan, and he gave her their names and information to contact them as well.
Val called me Wednesday night and thanked me and said she'd never forget me. While we talked she told me she had made a journey to Vietnam with some veterans, looking for answers. She told me she'd stopped with them on a bridge somewhere in the IaDrang Valley area, and when she'd told Chris this, he said that just happened to be the same bridge that her son Rollie was killed on. Now, she knows the true story and how her son was killed, and where.
Chris also talked to their unit in Ft. Knox, TX, and told his commander this story. The commander has sent Valerie an invitation to attend their reunion this summer, and an unveiling of the monument there. I sent Valerie a picture of the two of us at the Wall together as a remembrance and we are planning to stay in touch.
I believe that all Vietnam Vets should visit the Wall, either on their own, or with a group through a Vet Center. I do believe in miracles, and miracles happen. It's good to see your buddies, and good to leave your pain there. I came home a better person.
I can't ever thank Operation Freedom Bird, Southwest Airlines, and the Vet Center, or my counselor Ken Hall, enough....This story wouldn't have been possible without them.