Every five years, all the names of the 58,318 casualties of the Vietnam War are read in the days leading up to Veterans Day.
This year is even more special, as it commemorates the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. It opened to the public in Nov. 1982 to honor the fallen service members in the Vietnam War.
“When you look at the names on the wall, to have the last of those casualties, May 15, 1975, and to have this wall, this memorial dedicated on November 1982, that’s extraordinary to have this done, so we are celebrating that,” said Jeri McMahon, a longtime volunteer.
For the last seven years, McMahon has spent nearly every Saturday helping visitors find names of loved ones they lost, relying on her thick book of names of the casualties of her generation.
“The book is like an appendage to my arm, and it is the listing of the 58,318 names with their hometown of record, with their rank, because on the wall, we have almost 160 Medal of Honor recipients. We have five generals on the wall. You don’t see that on the wall. You won’t see it here, because everybody on that wall is the same.”
In the last several years, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has worked with veterans’ organizations across the country to collect more than 50,000 photos. There’s now an app with photos to match the names on the wall.
“When I find that photo on our app, and I turn it to them, the expression on their face, or their emotions, because there he is,” McMahon said. “There he is.”
She typically sees Vietnam vets from across the country come here to pay their respects and say goodbye to their buddies. For some, it’s part of their healing process.
“It’s just wonderful to talk to them. And just to share their wisdom or their fears — still their fears — and to be able to give them hugs — oh, I love my hugs!”
But decades years later, she’s seeing more signs of physical pain.
“It’s Agent Orange,” McMahon said. “Some of them are suffering. And when I look at them shaking or doing something, I just say ‘Agent Orange?’ So for these people, their battle hasn’t gone away. Their battle hasn’t ended. Their battle continues.”
Many veterans are dealing with the health effects of the toxic herbicide, which can lie dormant for decades. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers an Agent Orange Registry for exposure-related problems.
For McMahon, the wall is a place where she finds solace. A place she chose to dedicate her time, during a difficult time.
“In the beginning of 2010, I got a phone call from my son. And he said, ‘Mom, I’m going to Afghanistan.’ After having both my son and daughter serving in Iraq, and to hear this from my son, it really hurt my heart. I said OK, I can get through work all week — I can do that. I need something to do on weekends, and I need something to give back. I need to give back to what my children have done.”
The VVMF is raising funds for the construction of the Education Center at the wall. The underground interactive learning facility, to be built near the wall, will focus on the significance of Vietnam and its impact on the world.
For McMahon, it’s a long time coming. “The more people that see the Vietnam memorial, the more people that recognize what it is for, and how we are honoring those 58,318 names, the more people are aware of the strength of the American spirit and the sacrifice that men and women are still willing to make.”