The Hill That Heals: Dogwood Vietnam Memorial

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The symbolic, empty POW-MIA chair.
The symbolic, empty POW-MIA chair.

The grief of war, nearly inconsolable, so long borne and yet still so keen, was palpable at the 50th annual rededication of the Dogwood Vietnam Memorial in Charlottesville’s McIntire Park April 20 as mournful rain soaked the crowd of 500 that gathered on its wet paving stones and the sodden hillside above the flags of the armed forces. Plaques were unveiled for 26 dead young soldiers from Charlottesville and Albemarle County. So solemn was the occasion, so deep was the sacrifice it honored, that the crowd, vets and their families and other childhood friends of the dead, held on with reverence. What was it to suffer rain or cold compared to what the dead gave? Nothing. Where their graven wall stands and their wreaths are lined up, let every head hang humbled.

Jean Seal at the plaque for Wayne McRay
Jean Seal at the plaque for Wayne McRay

For Jean Seal of Crozet, known to many from her years at Crozet Hardware, the memorial’s moniker as the “hill that heals” is slowly coming true. One of those men was one she had taken for hers, Wayne McRay. Until very recently their story was a memory that reduced her simply to sobs.

Exactly 1,621 men are still missing on the battlefields of the Vietnam War. Some 58,000 men died and are accounted for. Event emcee Bruce Eades drew attention to the empty chair draped with the black POW/MIA flag, with its profile of a head in captivity. There was a moment of silence for them. Later a new flag was raised to carry on the vigil for them.

Memorial founder Jim Shisler, who has been dedicated to it, reminded the crowd that the Charlottesville memorial was the first in the country dedicated to the dead of Vietnam when it was christened on the same day in 1966. Roughly 100 men raised their hands when he asked Vietnam vets to show themselves.

Shisler introduced the main speaker, Michael Harris of Staunton, a Vietnam vet and retired Virginia State Police lieutenant with 83 commendations and the distinction of being named Police Officer of the Year. He now travels the country with the half-scale model of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., bringing the experience of the wall to people who can’t get to the real one themselves.

Jean Seal at the plaque for Wayne McRay
Jean Seal at the plaque for Wayne McRay

Before he spoke, the American flag that had been flying over the Dogwood memorial since last year, tattered at the fly end and faded, was lowered and a crisp new one that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol and the Vietnam Memorial was raised.

The traveling wall has been to 500 cities and towns in the U.S. and 40 locations are on its tour in 2016. Harris noted that the wall has a mirror-like finish that reflects the viewer and brings him or her into relationship with the dead names.

“[The wall] amazed me when I first saw it,” recalled Harris. “And I stood there in tears. Total strangers came up to me.”

He said the wall has magic and strange coincidences happen around it. He told the story of a soldier from Roanoke. He had shown the soldier’s name to the soldier’s niece who came in search of it. She asked if anyone knew if he had any friend with him when he died. Twenty minutes later another man came up asking about the same name. He revealed that he had been present when the uncle was hit and evacuated and had stayed with him until he died the next day in a hospital.

Harris noted that 400,000 items left at the D.C. memorial have been cataloged and are stored at a warehouse now. He said he looks forward to being reunited with friends he knew who died in the war. He struggled to command his emotions as he talked. This after talking about it countless times.

Pageant princesses from the Dogwood Parade placed flags for the 26 dead.
Pageant princesses from the Dogwood Parade placed flags for the 26 dead.

Next the flags of the service branches were raised and their anthems were played by an army band. Congressman Robert Hurt, not running for re-election, noted that he has given out 550 pins to Vietnam War vets in the Fifth District this year. He gestured across the Rt. 250 Bypass toward the lower campus of The Covenant School, where children could be heard outside. To protect them was a reason people went to war, he said. The vets knew the reasons for Vietnam weren’t that simple, and the families there were children who had lost a relative to the war. That’s why they were there that day.

Jimmy Flynn sang Soldiers of Vietnam, Welcome Home. “That’s a welcome many of them didn’t get when they first came home,” he said when he finished.

“We vets really appreciate that,” said Eades.

Col. James Kelly read the plaque biographies of two soldiers, Wayne McRay and James Kardos. He noted the rain. “God and the young men in heaven are crying,” he said. “We are the only generation I can find in [American] history that did not come home to cheers,” he said. “May it never happen again.”

An American flag, folded tri-corner, was presented to Seal in McRay’s memory.

Then the 2016 princesses from the Dogwood Parade and Miss Virginia placed flags in slots in the pavement, one for each of the dead. Their names were read aloud. Afterward, wreaths donated by various vets’ organizations and others were placed along the memorial’s circular wall. The rain fell harder and the crowd, soaked through their clothes, dug in.

Jim Camblos photographed the plaque of his high school best friend Erskine Wilde.
Jim Camblos photographed the plaque of his high school best friend Erskine Wilde.

Jimmy Fortune sang More Than a Name on a Wall and a 21-gun rifle salute followed. Volleys rang out. Pop. Pop. Pop. Then came taps on a bugle, and then Amazing Grace played on bagpipes, which gave it the quality of a wail. The crowd was deeply moved and in culmination, as rain slacked off, it quietly disbanded. Their grief was not over, but it was recognized.

“We remember,” said Shisler, “those who continue to suffer, not just those who died. Come back and look at these plaques.”

“This is sacred ground,” said chaplain Joel Jenkins. “We have set apart a place of honor, sacrifice and gratitude. These men gave all. Bless their families and comfort them. This community has risen up to say well done [to them.] May we do our best to do our duty.”

“It’s been a healing experience,” said Seal of her involvement with the anniversary. She first visited the Dogwood Memorial last year after many years of private suffering. The vets had taken her in after they learned her story and she joined the board that was getting ready for the 50th year commemoration. She spent the day before the rededication at the memorial rehearsing and getting the site ready.

Later, quietly, she recalled the story of her engagement to McRay.

“We met in the summer of ’67. I was a junior and Wayne was a senior [at Lane High School, now the County Office Building on McIntire Road]. We dated and spent a lot of time together. It was a bad year, 1968, for getting drafted. He was still in Charlottesville when I was a senior. He left in December of ’68 to go into the army. He had been drafted. He would not have joined. He did what he had to do. He didn’t leave the country to try to avoid it. His older brother James had been a Green Beret, but he was out. He had a younger half-brother and a half-sister, Tom and Sue. The family lived just north of Barracks Road.

“After basic training he left for Vietnam on June 1, 1969. He was scheduled to come home on May 21, 1970.

“James and Wayne were very close as brothers and Wayne’s death devastated him. [Local photographer] Jim Carpenter was in the same class at Lane. Wayne told Jim once in study hall that he expected he would be drafted and sent to Vietnam and that he did not expect to make it back. Jim told me that.

“Wayne was killed on Valentine’s Day. We were planning to get married when he got back. He sent lots of letters but never talked about what was happening there. When he left here he was a kid, but after nine months there, all that was taken away. He never took pictures. One of his buddies took the picture we have on the plaque. That was the only picture we ever had of him. It was a polaroid. He sent it to me. I was totally surprised to see the transformation in his face. You could see the war in his face. He had the best smile and he smiled all the time. He was happy and funny and he teased a lot. He enjoyed it. He was not in the yearbook because he purposely skipped that day to avoid getting his picture taken.

“He was a little rebellious. He rode a motorcycle and back then that gave boys a bad name. He was a good guy and always good to me. We had so much fun together. He reminded me of the movie Grease—how a boy acts around you and how he acts around his friends when he has to keep up his macho image.

“We met through a boy dating my sister. They rode motorcycles together. I was babysitting for my sister then. I stayed at her house while she worked and then I would stay nights with her. Wayne would come by and we would sit on the steps and talk. He thought he was too old for me. I was 17 and he was 19.  He thought we should break up. That upset me terribly. But we kept seeing each other at school and he kept coming to my house after work. He worked part-time at K Mart and Ridge Drive-In and Humpty Dumpty. On the weekends we would go to movies and go get pizza. I would have to sneak out to ride the motorcycle with him.

“We talked about getting married when he was home on his last leave. I begged him to get married before he left. He said we’d have plenty of time when he got back. I worked for Charlottesville Savings and Loan. I decided to buy a wedding band for him on lay-away and I paid on it every week. We talked about it in letters. After he died I went down and paid it off and picked it up. I had it put in his coffin. His brother Tom put it in there.

“I’m a whole lot better than I have been. I’ve come a long way. I never went to memorials. Tom asked me to go last year to the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. and I found Wayne’s name. But I only went once. It’s quite moving to see that wall. 58,000 men died. It’s hard to imagine that many gave their lives.

“Last year before the [Dogwood] memorial event I went over the day before and Tom Oakley, who is a board member, was there. I told him my connection. He introduced me to all the guys. They hugged me and made me feel part of it; that I belonged.

“It has helped me to not be emotional over it. I still do, but not as bad. Over the years I tried not to think about it. That didn’t really work for me because any time things came up I would break down.

“I never thought he would die there. I always thought he would come home. I got the news when an Army officer came to my house and returned letters I had sent that he never got. I wrote every day and he wrote at least once a week. His mother and father were told he was missing in action. Ten days went by before his body was identified. Then it hit me he wasn’t coming home. His brother told me that he was in a half-track that hit a land mine and he was burned up.

“They had a funeral with full military honors at Holly Memorial. I rode with the family. They included me. We were engaged. I was over at their house all the time and I told them what was in our letters.”

Two years later Seal married, a marriage that produced two children and ended in divorce. “I always wondered what my life would have been if . . . . It was not meant to be. Coming to Crozet was meant to be. I love Crozet.

“Wayne was my first love. Back in ’69 most kids did not go to college. You met someone in high school and you got married. I consider myself another casualty of the war. The loss affects so many people. War touches so many people.

“His best friend Tom left on the same plane as Wayne. But Tom went to Germany and he came home. Tom could never accept the fact that his best friend was killed. I still talk to him pretty regularly. He was not given leave to come home for the funeral and it made him very anti-government and sent his life in a different direction. It’s really sad. He called me at 1 a.m. the night before the 50th anniversary. We talked a long time. The memorial and me going through it helped him a little bit. He shared that. He lives in Maine. I visited him six years ago. He has Wayne’s obituary posted at his door. He said he says something to it every day. He never married. He came home to Charlottesville after Wayne’s funeral. We became friends. He didn’t really know me before. We rode across country to get him to his next base in California. It was just a friendship. There was nothing romantic. We talked a lot. I flew home. After a couple of months I got a package. It was an engagement ring. The note said, ‘You were Wayne’s girlfriend and I was his best friend and I think Wayne would want me to take care of you.’

“Being at the 50th with other people, it helped me to be able to talk about it and put a little closure on it. Vietnam was so unpopular and the boys were so badly treated when they came home. They thought they were fighting for their country. So many came back so badly damaged mentally from what they had been through. It’s a sad, sad situation, but I consider myself a better person for knowing Wayne.

“The memorial foundation guys say that people need to see how the war affected me and my family. When we got the news of Wayne’s death is the only time I ever saw my Dad cry. My mom and dad liked him a lot and they were happy about the marriage. I was a kid and I didn’t think he would die. It was totally devastating. You make all these plans and things change so quickly. Tomorrow is not promised and you have to live in today.” She stopped to wipe her eyes again. “I never foresaw that I would be alone late in life.

“I’m giving the flag they gave me to Tom. His son is interested in the family history. I was happy to be allowed to accept it. I felt very honored.”

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