As he made his way around The Wall That Heals on Thursday morning, Walter Wiese stopped to read the names.
The traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that came to Fairfield Tuesday contains the names of every American who died in the war, more than 58,000 people. Wiese recognized many of the names, having served in the U.S. Army?s Fourth Infantry Division, Third Battalion of the 12th.
?I know 25 names on this wall,? Wiese said. ?Fifteen of them are from my graduating class, and 10 of them are people I knew in Vietnam, some killed right before my eyes. I have a deep emotional connection to the symbol of the wall.?
The Wall That Heals is at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, and will be there until 2 p.m. Sunday when it will be taken apart and moved to a different town. It is open to the public at no charge and at all hours of the day.
Wiese visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., 20 years ago. While there, he did a favor for his friend Joseph Frakes, a Fairfield city councilor for 20 years. Frakes? son Jerry died during the Vietnam War, and his name appears on the memorial. Wiese pressed a piece of paper to Jerry?s name on the wall and made a rubbing of it, which he gave to Joe.
?He was very touched by that,? Wiese said. ?Even though I didn?t know his son, I felt a kinship with him.?
As he traveled around it reading the names, he felt something was missing. ?Let me introduce you to Stumpy,? Wiese said, pointing to the stump that remains from his missing left leg. ?Stumpy is always looking on the wall for a leg. He was part of what was lost, too.?
Wiese said it?s impossible to fully grasp the scale of pain and suffering of the war.
?Each one of these names represents a life that was lost, and there are thousands of them. It?s unfathomable,? he said. ?And it?s just one war in a string of wars in our history. Why do we do this again and again? Why do we resort to war? Isn?t there a better way??
Wiese has lived in Fairfield since 1978, but grew up in Carmel, Cali. He graduated from high school in 1964, and was drafted into the Army three years later. Though he opposed the war, he felt a patriotic duty to serve once he was called upon to do so.
One of the noteworthy features of the Army was that it was racially diverse. That was new for Wiese, coming from a town that was almost entirely white.
?My best buddy in training, Whitfield, was black, and we even ended up in the same platoon in Vietnam,? he said. ?We both got into trouble because of it.?
Wiese said some of the other soldiers didn?t take kindly to their friendship and he recounted a couple of instances where the two had to save each other from being beaten.
Wiese was trained as a mortarman, but Vietnam?s topography did not always suit the light mortar shells he was firing. The country has a ?three canopy jungle,? meaning the jungle has three distinct canopies, and is so thick that the jungle floor can be pitch black during the day. Mortar shells fired into the canopy would fall straight back down.
?I went to the supply sergeant, and he told me we weren?t going to deploy mortars. He handed me an M-16 and said, ?You?re a rifleman now, son,?? Wiese said.
Wiese?s injury occurred when his platoon was trying to take a hill. As the infantry advanced, they received artillery support. However, something went wrong with an artillery shell and it didn?t fire. The shell was either jammed in the cannon or possibly a dud.
Since it?s far too dangerous to fiddle with an artillery piece in that state, it was left alone. The soldiers continued to climb the hill, but suddenly, the cannon fired. Wiese?s platoon had already walked into the cannon?s target. The explosion nearly killed him. Not only was his left leg gone, he was losing blood fast.
?I realized I only had two or three minutes to live,? Wiese said. ?The medic was able to stop the bleeding in less than a minute.?
For a brief moment, his conscious awareness left his body, and he felt he was looking down on his body from above. He thought he was dying.
?I appealed to God at that moment, and I angrily demanded something,? Wiese said. ?I had only done two things in my life: go to school, and get drafted into the Army. I want more to my life than that before it ends. I hadn?t even had a girlfriend yet.?
That?s when Wiese made a bargain with God. He told God that if he allowed him to live, Wiese would do all he could to learn the lessons of war, and share them with as many people as he could so they wouldn?t suffer the same fate.
When the medic plunged a needle into his leg, Wiese felt as though a vacuum cleaner sucked his consciousness back into his body. It was not his time to go.
Death was already on Wiese?s mind because he had seen so much of it in the three weeks he was in Vietnam before his injury.
Wiese returned to the United States, where he went through a vocational rehabilitation program through the Veterans Affairs Office. He received a stipend and free books to go to college. He was the first college graduate in his family in two generations. He became a high school teacher. At first, he wore a prosthetic leg, but it causes him pain so he doesn?t usually wear it now.
?I made it a point, even after I retired, to speak about my situation,? Wiese. ?It has been part of my healing process as well.