Thursday, November 27, 2014
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House call from the Vietnam Wall

The Wall That Heals, they call it.

House call from the Vietnam Wall

A volunteer with the Vietnam Traveling Wall helps Deborah and George Cross find Deborah´s cousin´s name. (Ron Tarver/Staff)
A volunteer with the Vietnam Traveling Wall helps Deborah and George Cross find Deborah's cousin's name. (Ron Tarver/Staff)

From the road, the dark chevron that snakes along the grounds of the Coatesville VA Hospital looks like a fence for a Little League diamond.

Come closer, on a cold, blustery day, and you'll see men and women approach it slowly, silently - a sign announces: Quiet Zone.

A bearded, ponytailed man walks up to the wall and searches its 250-foot length for a name etched into the powder-coated aluminum. He finds what he's looking for, touching the words, tracing their length, and then pulls back to take in their collective weight, 58,282 names in all.

George and Deborah Cross drove out from Downingtown on Thursday morning. She was looking for Norman Byassee, a cousin she never got to meet. The sailor died in a helicopter crash Feb. 26, 1970, in An Giang, South Vietnam. He was 21 and married, from her dad's side of the family.

She found his name and then choked up. Her husband was already crying.

George Cross, 60, was a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam. The sergeant served two tours, and today, in his job with the Chester County corrections department, he still suffers from exposure to Agent Orange. He considers himself one of the fortunate.

"I look at this wall," he said, "and it brings back tears. It makes me proud of the ones that served along with me. We had a job to do, and we did what we were asked to do.

"But it hurts at the same time. We didn't get support and the recognition when we came home."

The official name of the exhibit mounted on the grounds of the hospital for five days last week was the Vietnam Traveling Wall. It has a nickname as well:

The Wall That Heals.

The memorial is half the size of the original in Washington, so the names are jammed closer together, which makes the experience even more disorienting. Ask Buddy Rhoades.

"You see names, I see faces," says Rhoades, 67, wearing a Purple Heart jacket.

I ask how many names he recognizes and his blue eyes glaze.

"Thirty."

He lives in East Fallowfield Township, grew up around Coatesville, knew some of the boys from school, church, and football. He joined the Special Forces, doing his hairiest work in Cambodia.

"I sometimes wonder why others died and not me," he said. "What I think about now is how to help other veterans who are coming home. I think that's my purpose, that and helping to make sure these guys are not forgotten."

With him was Barry Durkee, 62, a project manager for a developer in Chester. He talks about his reception after his Vietnam tours ended in 1972.

"I arrived in my khakis at the airport in Reading, and there's this mother and this young boy. The mother doesn't see me, but the boy does and his eyes lit up - a soldier! She turns and I see her expression of disgust. She pulled him close as if to protect him from me. That really hurt."

Durkee grew up in Shillington, Pa., where he had John Updike's father for junior high math. Durkee's older brother was a Marine. So he enlisted in the Army, starting as a helicopter mechanic, then replacing a fallen crewmate as a gunner.

He served four years, 10 months, 28 days, and 16 hours, though it sometimes feels as though he's still serving.

"I hear a helicopter today and I'm back there. Smells, sounds do it. Sometimes I just like to forget."

Deborah and George Cross left the memorial after braving the elements for an hour. As they were heading for their car, a man approached from the opposite direction.

They didn't know each other, but the man recognized something in him and grabbed Cross anyway. They hugged.

"Thanks for serving," each man said, then they went their separate ways.

Daniel Rubin Inquirer Columnist
About this blog
Blinq is a news commentary blog featuring contributions from Inquirer Metro columnists Kevin Riordan and Daniel Rubin.

Kevin Riordan Inquirer Columnist
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