This was posted first at the Vietnam Memorial Wall Foundation blog.
Some people know them as the “Yellow Hatters”, the familiar park service volunteers dressed in bright yellow shirts and matching hats who stand ready at The Wall. Ready to help with a pencil tracing of a name. Ready with a ladder. Ready with a bottle of water. Ready with pack of Kleenexes. Ready to tell people to turn off their cell phones. Oftentimes, they are ready just to listen, and to offer a welcome hug.
Around our house, we know them simply as “The Uncles.” They are the men who served in Vietnam and then came home to do just as they promised to do – Never Forget. They pay their deepest respects by volunteering at The Wall. Digging deep into their own pockets, they travel in from across the nation and spend days standing guard at The Wall, in wicked heat and blustery wind, handing out pencils and sheets of white paper, guiding people to names they cannot find.
Charlie Harootunian was the first of the Uncles I met. It was Veterans Day 2002. I remember because it was my first trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I made the trip at the invitation of Gold Star Wife, Pauline Laurent. Pauline had told me in advance what a huge support this “Yellow Hatter” named Charlie, and his wife Ann, had been to her.
It was one of those deceptively sunny days in D.C. that belied the appendage-freezing temperatures. Charlie Harootunian invited me inside a mobile unit parked across the street from The Wall. A gathering hole for volunteers, this was the place where volunteers could grab a cup of hot coffee, and stand by a heater for a moment before braving the cold again. Charlie introduced me to others, told them I was a “Daughter of The Wall.” Charlie Harootunian helped me find my father’s name on Panel 9-E Line 71. He handed me paper and pencil and stood aside as I made my first tracing.
My father, Staff Sgt. David P. Spears, served with the 25th Infantry, 2/9th Artillery. He was Chief of Smoke. I was nine years old, at home with two siblings, a crippled grandfather, and a mother at her wit’s end with a new dog when a soldier carrying that dreaded “Regret-to-Inform” telegram pulled up in front of our little trailer house in East Tennessee.
Mike Coale, Karen, Red Flegal, Charlie Harootunian and Rick Barrett
In the weeks that followed my first visit to The Wall, the phone calls started coming in. First from Charlie. Then from the other Yellow Hatters I’d met at The Wall – Red Flegal, Rick Barrett, Ron Worstell, and Mike Coale, who, like my father, also served with the 25th Infantry Division. Everybody was calling to check on me, to make sure I was doing okay. Was there anything I needed? These men stepped into that gap that spanned the lifetime I had spent without my father.
There would be others like them over the years that have followed. Vietnam veterans who I jokingly refer to as the Veteran Mafia because of the manner in which they look after me, and after my family. But it has been Charlie, and Red, Rick, Mike and Ron who have most often been at my side throughout this journey of healing.
They know the names and phone numbers of my children. When I took my daughter Konnie to New York City for the first time, Mike Coale and wife Jean met us there and spent the day touring us around. A few years later, when I would return to New York City to appear on Good Morning America and at the New School University to speak about the memoir I wrote about my father’s death – After the Flag has been Folded – Charlie and his wife Ann came in from Boston, Mike and Jean came in from New Jersey. When my daughter Ashley got married a year later, Charlie Harootunian and Ron Worstell flew out to Oregon for the wedding. When I traveled to Philadelphia to meet with Doc Baldwin, the surgeon who tried to save my father’s life in the field, it was Red Flegal and his wife Mary who hosted me and daughter Shelby. These men are always stepping into the gap where my father couldn’t be.
And this time last year, as my mother lay dying, too young, from a cancer that ravaged her, it was these men I turned to once again. They shared their own stories of losing their mamas. They wrote letters to my mother, sent her cards, sent her flowers. “I just don’t understand it,” Mama said one afternoon as I sat at her bedside.
“Understand what?” I asked.
“I don’t understand why all these veterans who don’t even know me would care about me the way they do.”
It’s hard to explain to a person who has never been to The Wall the sense of belonging to one another that The Wall invokes. Charlie Harootunian, Red Flegal, Mike Coale, Ron Worstell, Rick Barrett, Jan Scruggs, Joe Galloway, Tom Jones, Gordon Wofford, Ned Devereaux, and Doc Baldwin, these are just a few of the names of the men who have become family to me.
I have authored four more books since I penned After the Flag has been Folded (William Morrow/HarperCollins). My latest book is a work of fiction. Mother of Rain (Mercer University Press) is a World War II story of mystery, madness, mountains and Melungeons.
Set in 1940s Appalachia – that part of the country where my father and mother grew up – the story focuses on the isolation that young Maizee Hurd endures when her husband Zebulon Hurd is deployed with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment to Cottesmore, England and then to Normandy. Maizee Hurd is the mother to a young deaf boy named Rain. She is the mother of Rain.
I didn’t set out to write a World War II story. I set out to tell a story of what it means to broken and surrounded by a community of loving people who are intimately aware of one’s brokenness. The very sort of community that I discovered at The Wall.
In Mother of Rain, I deliberately named the men who serve alongside the character of Zebulon Hurd after the Yellow Hatters, those Uncles, who have been at my side over the years since my first visit to The Wall that heals: Charlie Harootunian. Red Flegal. Mike Coale. Rick Barrett. Ron Worstell.
I tell the Uncles that I have immortalized them in the pages of this work of fiction. When Harootunian and Flegal protested that I may have killed them off, I responded that I have simply made them into heroes. For that’s what each of these “Yellow Hatters” have become to me and my family – heroes of hope and healing.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of MOTHER OF RAIN (Mercer Univ. Press). She teaches journalism at Central Washington University. She can be reached via Twitter @newsite.karenzach.com or at her website newsite.karenzach.com