The Moving Wall is a half-scale replica of Washington DC's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Since 1984, The Moving Wall has toured the country, having installed itself for public viewing at over a thousand towns and cities. A conservative estimate would put the number of visitors in the millions. This blog is dedicated to getting behind The Moving Wall, to revealing how it was built, and what keeps it standing and rolling along.

On The Road With The Moving Wall

I have created a separate blog for this year's visitors to The Moving Wall. On it, they can directly post observations, impressions, reflections, etc. They can also post images. This new blog has the potential to be a great journal or travelogue of The Moving Wall in 2010. Please spread the word.

Here is the blog: http://rollingwiththemovingwall2010.blogspot.com/

I am also quite honored and pleased that Sharon Denitto has requested that her excellent site, Touch The Wall, be linked here. Please visit Touch The Wall, as Sharon's hard work offers a unique perspective on The Wall, and presents information not readily found elsewhere.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Some Background on John Devitt, subject to revision

First, let me tell you a little 
about John Devitt, upon whom The Wall hinges. (Note: In general, The Wall refers to the Maya Lin memorial in DC. However, while in White Pine, everyone there referred to The Moving Wall as “The Wall.” Henceforth, I will also use “The Wall” when referring to The Moving Wall, and when necessary I will refer to the memorial on The Mall as “The DC Wall,” or something to that effect.”)

John was born and raised in California, not too far from San Francisco. He was a good Irish Catholic lad, and was accorded a good Catholic school education. When he was of age, he went to a residential Catholic high school where he was on track to become a priest. As he tells it, his hormones got in the way of his vocation, and opting for confections over confessions, he dropped out of that school and completed his then secular education at a public high school.

In 1966, at the age of eighteen, John volunteered for the Army, thinking it better to enlist than to be drafted. I'm not clear how that calculation worked out for him, but the result of it landed him as a helicopter door gunner. Consequently, he was, in the parlance of the time, not only “in country” but also, “in the shit.” 

After a year, when his tour was up, he considered his options and what awaited him back home in the States. Not much, was his conclusion. And as the area of his unit's assignment had largely been “pacified,” John believed that if he extended his tour he could ride it out in relative quiet (relative for Vietnam, that is). So he decided to extend, and no sooner had the ink dried on his contract then he was reassigned to a zone the fighting was heavy. I suspect that he must have had some buyer's remorse with that second tour. Still, he managed to stay alive, and in 1969 returned home to California.

As John tells it, a Vietnam vet's return was a bitter affair. Having survived two years of hostilities in 'Nam, John, and others like him, had hostilities of a different sort to survive stateside. By 1969 the war was hugely unpopular. In February of 1968, front pages around the country published Eddie Adams' photo of South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan publicly executing a suspected Viet Cong lieutenant. The following month, the My Lai massacre occurred, later permeating then dominating the media with accounts of soldiers run amok, leading to allegations of Pentagon cover-ups, further calling into question the morality and justification of the war. 

Because of My Lai and other incidents of military psychosis, the generic American soldier fighting in Vietnam had -- unfairly -- been fitted into an amoral, murderous stereotype. As John tells it, when a combat vet returned home from 'Nam, he kept his mouth shut about his service. He lived incognito. If interviewing for a job, he hoped he wouldn't be asked the question, “Ever serve in 'Nam?”

Those first years back were very isolating for John, very painful, as they were for many vets. Americans reviled the war, and by extension, those who fought it. Only those who were there, who themselves were in the shit, could understand the true nature of the conflict. The idea of fighting for one's country an illusion swiftly lost, in that any soldier who managed to survive the first few days under fire quickly learned that those who were trusted to run the war were inept. The first order of business for soldier in the shit wasn't to defend South Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh and communism, it was to stay alive. It was to help others stay alive. For John, and for other vets, that's what the war was about.

As time wore on, John sought out and established contact with other vets in the Bay area. Long before support groups would be named such, John and others had formed one. It didn't remove the bitterness, but it did make it bearable.

Flash forward, circa 1982. News of the soon-to-be dedicated Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington had been circulating some time. From the moment of its inception the design for The Wall had mired in conflict. Maya Lin's design was seen as renunciation of patriotism, of American honor, of human sacrifice and the glory that should be accorded it. On more than one occasion it was referred to as “the black gash of shame.”

And so it was with feelings of ambivalence toward the memorial that John headed toward Washington in November of 1982, toward The Wall's unveiling. He wasn't sure what he would feel about The Wall once there, but he was sure that he wanted to be among his other Vietnam brothers to dedicate it. For John it was less the occasion of the dedication and more the occasion of reconnecting with former comrades, known and as-yet unknown, that propelled him three thousand miles.

And then it happened. He saw The Wall, and saw his comrades, and saw what The Wall meant to his comrades, what it was doing to them, and he knew it was right. He knew that despite the controversy, The Wall was right. It allowed John and the others to be who they were, with all their histories, and to be with each other openly, unashamedly, perhaps even proudly, in a way disallowed them everywhere else in America. To grieve, to howl, to honor, to breathe, to exhale. 

John was moved tremendously by The Wall and what it enabled. And on his return to California, he began thinking how he might replicate the experience for other. That will be the subject of the next post.

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