The Oregonian: On this Memorial Day at Oregon's Vietnam Wall, the gift of that war
Author: By Julie Sullivan
Posted: May 30, 2010

Consider the name Lloyd A. Duncan, carved on the Oregon Vietnam Veterans Living Memorial.

I met Lloyd A. Duncan a week ago Saturday. He was chewing a cigar and looking at his name engraved on the black granite wall.

Lloyd Alvan Duncan,  a 20-year-old combat medic from Albany, did, in fact, die in Vietnam in 1967.

But Lloyd Albert Duncan, drafted out of Astoria one year later, did not. That Lloyd A. Duncan, also served in Vietnam as a combat medic. He was wounded on May 17, 1969. Last Saturday, he stood on that hillside in the rain talking quietly with a young man he was mentoring.

As a drug and alcohol specialist, Lloyd Duncan has likely saved more lives in Portland than he ever saved in Vietnam.

We are here today at this memorial to honor the men and women who died serving the United States. This year, Oregon lost Matthew Lembke, Taylor Marks, Earl Warner, Michael Johnson, David Mudge, Elijah Rao, Joshua Lengstorf and Erin McLyman.

How do we honor their parents? What they have given? Matt Lembke was an all-conference football star in Tualatin who died after losing both legs in Afghanistan. Taylor Marks' funeral was in the same barn in Independence where he danced at his senior prom. How do you honor what they have given?

After four years of writing about impact of the wars on Oregon families, I have concluded, you start here. This memorial. This beautiful amphitheater is called the Oregon Vietnam Veterans Living Memorial to honor not just those who died, but the 57,000 Oregonians who served and came home. They have given us a path to follow. Vietnam veterans have transformed our nation's treatment of those serving in the military. They propelled the diagnosis, treatment and widespread understanding of post-traumatic stress. They have made us look at an amputee and see a paralympic athlete. They have alerted us to the risk of chemical exposure and of chemical addiction. They have proven that when a soldier goes to war, her family does, too.

They have given us, at an unimaginable personal cost, the gift of Vietnam.

More than 1,000 studies have been conducted on today's combat veterans, but everything we know for sure about PTSD is based on the Vietnam vet. Vets helping one another led to the creation of readjustment centers under a Veterans Affairs chief, a triple amputee named Max Cleland. Today, 30 years later, there are 299 Vet centers, where more 22,000 Iraq and Afghan vets get help.

The gift of Vietnam.

Linda Rotering was a young social worker in Vietnam, stationed at the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh and the U.S. Army Hospital Saigon. She took her unique experience and earned a master's degree and a doctorate. Today, as a readjustment therapist at the Portland Vet Center on Sandy Boulevard, she has treated vets from 11 different wars and military campaigns. I have met many of the people she has helped.

Linda told me, "I know what it's like to come home from living in a war zone and have a broken heart and a broken soul and a broken trust in humanity that no one can see, and I can't explain, nor do I want to try, nor does anyone ask. We think that avoidance of war memories will hide and heal them, but, it doesn't.

"Now I know that broken can be mended and that I can be with others and guide them to duct tape and staple and super glue the pieces back together. And, that it works."

It works. Ask William "Bud" Brown, a combat vet who drifted into a vet center in Vegas almost 30 years ago. Today, Dr. Brown teaches criminal justice at Western Oregon University. But he also ferociously tracks veterans who become homeless and those who break the law. He has launched a non-profit to build the first legal center for veterans in Washington state, and is co-founder of the Bunker Project, residential treatment center for veterans in Oregon.

"I have a responsibility to do something," Bud says. "Most of the veteran criminal cases I have seen were likely preventable if only someone had intervened or offered viable options -- and I am not talking about the 10-13 prescriptions they are given when diagnosed with PTSD."

Vietnam. I've heard it described as a war, a morass, a syndrome. Portland playwright and poet Roger Fuchs beautifully described what Vietnam meant to an entire generation of Americans, including me:

"For our parents in WWII, the whole country came together. Everyone knew what they were fighting for. But for us, the country came apart. World War II we won and Korea we forgot, but Vietnam we just never wanted to know. A whole generation of us have been torn apart by Vietnam -- whether we went or not."

Fuchs concludes that the power of the national memorial, The Wall, is that "it's for all of us. For the whole."

Follow this path, to the sixth alcove above this garden and you will see, the names of those still missing in action in southeast Asia. Because of Vietnam veterans, the federal government has committed to accounting for all Americans missing in action. Since 1973, the remains of 927 people have been found and brought home.

Ensign Eldon Wyman, a Grant High and University of Oregon standout was identified by DNA and returned to his family for full burial 67 years after he died on the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. I wrote about the funeral two years ago and the family that had waited for him nearly seven decades. I can tell you it gave them peace. For all of us, for the whole.

Last August, I paddled the Willamette River with 17 veterans blinded in Afghanistan or Iraq. They left me to run whitewater on the Deschutes River. Oregon has an amazing water sport program for disabled veterans, because of a Gresham river rat named Val Shaull,  who served two tours as a combat engineer in Vietnam.

"When I got out of Vietnam, I tried a lot of different things to quell the demons," said Shaull, a retired Portland firefighter. "Getting away from crowds, being in nature, changes my attitude. I calm down and life is a whole lot better," he said. "I figured if it worked for me, it will work for other people.

"We live in the age of the anti-hero, cynical about any allegiance to duty, honor and country.

John Wheeler, a West Point graduate and one of the founders of The Wall,  wrote in 1984 that "Learning from Vietnam will proceed only when our country can fully acknowledge the integrity of service and the embodiment of the cherished values represented in the soldiers sent to Vietnam."

Dennis Reynolds is an insurance broker, so straightforward and self-effacing that his closest friends did not know he served three tours as a Marine radio operator in Vietnam. But I kept running into Dennis, who has voluntarily stood in a flag line or organized a flag line at almost 400 Oregon veterans funerals and military homecomings as a Patriot Guard Rider.

Dennis told me, "When I'm holding the flag, and you see the tears, you see what it means to the families for us to be there. It's something you never forget." Dennis believes this simple act has helped the entire country acknowledge and appreciate those now serving.

Last Saturday, I met West Linn High students here cleaning these grounds for today's service. They'd been studying the Vietnam War, but they weren't too excited about it until Ron Cannon showed up at their history class. Ron works for the federal government finding and protecting veterans' jobs. He told the students about stepping on a land mine in Vietnam and losing his right leg. Then he took it off - and tossed it to Kaitlin Andrus.

"I caught it," she said, "It changed my whole view of the war, it was so personal. I thought, 'this really happened.' "

I know Ron, because the first time I met him, he tossed his leg at me, too. He did so to get an Iraq vet to get comfortable with his new artificial leg. The Iraq vet's prosethetic looked like a Star War's version. Ron's leg looks like it was from the War of 1812. And I can't help think that one was due to the other.

The gift of Vietnam.

Here's the path these vets have shown me. Be nice. Be nice to everyone. Talk to the press. Visit high school classes. Send a BlueStar mother a note, cross the airport to shake a soldier's hand, show up for parades, vote, work for peace.

After Dan Shea came home as a Marine in Vietnam and started a family, his son was born with a heart defect linked to Dan's Agent Orange exposure. Casey died of complications from it at 3.

Dan turned his grief into activism, started a drop-in care at a child center, organized a multi-cultural center at Portland State University and has lead many of Portland's peace and social justice activities since 9/11.

On this Memorial Day, consider the living memorial all around us.

Honor the sacrifice of Lloyd Alvan Duncan, who gave so much, and of Lloyd Albert Duncan, who has given so much since, from Vietnam.