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Veterans at Vietnam memorial moving wall recall their losses

SUNDAY, AUG. 14, 2011

She was with some of those men whose names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall as they died, said Becky Branson, of Moscow, Idaho. But she can’t say who they were because there was never enough time to learn their names.

Branson was a nurse at Chu Lai in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. “We had a lot who lived,” she said. Medical care improved as the war progressed, but it was never enough.

Some things stayed with her, she said, her voice catching. She remembers a man saying his legs hurt. “I know they are not there,” he said, “but they hurt.” Another died from “friendly fire,” she said. “I held his hand while he died.”

“Those are memories I still carry so it makes it hard in some ways to be here, but also good to be here,” she said Friday during a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Moving Wall at the Nez Perce County Fairgrounds.

Some sat in front of the audience, waiting to take their turn. Others came out of the crowd, one at a time, to share their memories.

Picture yourself standing on a helicopter pad at the 12th Evacuation Hospital at Cu Chi during the Tet Offensive, said a man in a cowboy hat. “Casualties are coming in faster than you can deal with them and my job is to decide who is going to live if we ignore them, who is likely to die no matter what we do, and who among the others should be treated first.”

That is one of two memories he carries with him every day, the man said. “The other is a moment of great beauty. A helicopter is burning and I’m lying on my back and I’m hurting but I don’t really understand how and why and a blue plane comes over those trees absolutely hosing down that area where the bad stuff had come from. That Navy plane was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.”

Robert J. Topmiller was a Navy corpsman assigned to Steven Orr’s Marine outfit during the 77-day battle at Khe Sanh. “He was our savior,” Orr said, but the man they called Doc suffered greatly from post-traumatic stress syndrome. “There were so many wounded and he had to make decisions who could be treated and who could be saved.”

Topmiller survived the war and became a noted historian, but he died in 2008 while working on his third book, an exposé of the Veterans Administration, Orr said. He was working on chapters on Agent Orange and PTSD “and he couldn’t take it any longer. His name’s not on the wall, but he was another casualty of Vietnam.”

Speaking to the veterans in the crowd, Orr said if Doc was here, “he would tell you, don’t ignore it. Look at it, face it, get any help you may need.”

One out of three men assigned to the little boats that worked the rivers and canals trying to stop Viet Cong supplies was wounded, said Tom Anderson, a retired Navy commander from Moscow, Idaho. Between 1966 and 1971, 5,600 soldiers were assigned to the 31-foot river patrol boats, he said. “One hundred thirty-seven are on the wall.”

Sometimes they didn’t hear of a friend’s death until they got home, speakers said. Sometimes they lived or someone else died because of a minute or a degree.

They hated Joan Baez and Jane Fonda, said Gary Taylor, of Nezperce, Idaho, and he thought Vietnam taught people to keep politics out of battle decisions. “But look at Afghanistan. I don’t think we learned anything.”

More than 58,000 died, and their names are on the wall, said Mike Beckley, of Lewiston. He brought a photograph of a friend whose name is there, the two of them in their Cub Scout uniforms, and a piece of a rocket that exploded in front of his bunker, striking his helmet. After 40 years, he said, “I am ready to let it go.”

More than 2,000 Americans who fought in Vietnam are still unaccounted for, said Douglas W. Zenner, of Culdesac, Idaho. Zenner said he didn’t serve in the military, but asked that people write their congressmen to push for more recovery efforts.

One of those, said John Currin, of Lewiston, was his commander, Capt. Donald Aldern, who flew off their carrier, the USS Oriskany, toward Laos and never came back. “He didn’t have to fly combat missions, but that was the kind of commander he was.”

One man said he lost two friends, but it took years before it finally hit him. He became a “raging alcoholic” for a while, and suffered flashbacks when his job brought him in contact with homemade bombs.

But what worries him now, he said, is his son is going to deploy next spring to Afghanistan after already serving tours there and in Africa and Iraq.

“We must take care of the young people in the military,” he said. “We must give them our full support.”

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