Emotions at the Wall: Visiting Vietnam Memorial is a moving experience

John Norvell

In 1985, we moved to the Washington, D.C. area.  When we arrived, I knew from the start that I would visit the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial — “The Wall” — that had been dedicated in 1982. One of my ROTC instructors at Hobart College, Major Theodore “Ted” Shorack, had died in Vietnam in 1966 just before my graduation that year.  

Nearly 50 years later, in a way, Shorack’s death seems to have foreshadowed the end of the military presence in the life of Geneva. Air Force ROTC had begun at Hobart in the early 1950s, and was the natural outgrowth of the Navy V-12 program, which had trained officers at the Colleges during the Second World War. Both programs had provided significant financial support to Hobart and William Smith.   

When we moved to Washington, one of the first things I did was go to The Wall to search for Shorack’s name.    Coupled with this was the closing of Sampson, which had played a major economic role in the surrounding communities. In the early 1960s, Ted Shorack was typical of the military members who lived in the Finger Lakes and was well known and respected. He touched many lives and his unexpected death stunned those of us who had known him. By the late 1960s, the military had fallen out of favor. For nearly 15 years, all Hobart students had been required to participate in the ROTC program. The “Tommy the Traveler Incident” in 1970, and concurrent anti-war and military sentiment, brought about the end of ROTC at Hobart.

It’s hard to describe the impact of this place on the first visit. In many ways it is very disarming. Its setting is a quiet park near the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool. It is a calm place of great beauty. The memorial starts as a low black granite panel on each end and gradually rises, in a dramatic V to an apex of more than 10 feet high at its center.  Walking down the path before it, the names move up the panels until they tower above you. One name, 20 names, 100 names, 1,000 names, 10,000 names, they flood the areas in front and behind you, above and around you. You look at your reflection on the polished granite and you become one with them.

Visiting on Veterans Day was a particularly poignant experience. Men and women moved along The Wall, stopped and knelt. Some cried.    Others, some veterans, moved with great difficulty, some were in wheelchairs, some were missing limbs. Many were in old army uniforms, some wore medals, many had long hair and beards. All different, but united in their losses. All drawn to this place for their own private reasons as they searched for the names — fathers, brothers, wives, husbands who never returned.

Along the path you were struck by the items people left there. A Teddy bear, medals, flowers, photographs, a scrapbook, letters, a combat unit lighter, and much, much more. These items were so personal it was sometimes painful to see them, almost as if you were violating a sacred place by being there.  

There is uniqueness to this. I have been to the Arizona Memorial, Gettysburg, the WW II Memorial and many war memorials, but it is only at The Wall that this seems to happen. It is almost as if the mourners are leaving an offering to those who are gone ... reaching out to them to bring them back. At The Wall visitors embrace the honored dead, paying witness to their sacrifice and what it cost this nation. And, I am comforted by the fact that as long as it stands, Ted Shorack and those who gave their lives for our country, will finally, in a way, get the thanks for their service that they never received in life.