HARRISONBURG — The Wall That Heals has come and gone. From its stop in Harrisonburg April 19-21, the replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial continued to Richmond, Ky. It’s now on the way to Springfield, Ill.
But for local veteran Spencer White, the impact of that traveling exhibit —and the lost soldiers of the war it commemorates—lives on. Because of the wall, he joined Chimney Rock VFW Post 9660 and because of the wall, he spent hours over that April weekend helping veterans on their individual journeys of healing. And he continued his own journey.
“I’ve worked hard to put those memories in their proper place,” White said during an interview that weekend, “turning them not into fond memories, but memories… Being here shows me that I’ve done that and other veterans can do it, too.”
In 2009, when the wall first visited Harrisonburg and more than 10,000 visitors came to pay their respects, White read the newspaper coverage.
But he couldn’t bring himself to go, kneel in front of the black wall and find the names.
From 1968-1975, White served in the Marine Corps. He spent 15 months in combat in Vietnam. For most of that time, he served as part of an elite, specially selected group of Marines called the Command Action Program, or CAP. Squads of about 12 Marines and one Navy Corpsman lived in isolated Vietnamese villages, trained the Vietnamese Popular Forces, secured the area from incursions by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong, and kept villagers from becoming refugees. More than 5,000 Marines served in the CAP program and many did not return.
After his discharge, White became a regional salesman for a packaging company. He moved to Singers Glen with his wife in 1989.
The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 “triggered all kinds of memories,” White said, including feelings of anger and grief.
He joined a combat veterans support group at the Martinsburg Veterans Administration Medical Center.
Six years ago, he and several members of his former Marine Corp squad traveled to the Washington Mall to visit the full-scale memorial. “It was really hard, really hard,” White said. “I came home just wiped out.”
Because of that experience, he didn’t visit The Wall That Heals in 2009. But after it left, he connected with Chimney Rock VFW.
“I liked that it was a dry post, it doesn’t serve any liquor,” White said, “and I liked the people … Anybody that has been in a war fighting for their country, there’s a bond that is unseen, but you feel it and it runs pretty deep.”
White is now the post’s senior vice commander. And when the Wall That Heals returned to Harrisonburg a few weeks, he was among the 100 volunteers, headed by coordinator Kay Kibler, to provide daily local support.
One afternoon, some members of his support group traveled from Martinsburg to visit the wall, then reconvened at the post near Broadway for a meal provided by the ladies auxiliary.
Though visits were down by several thousand from 2009, White says numbers don’t sum up the healing power of one individual’s experience.
“Seeing the wall here outside Washington is a lot less intimidating,” he said. “You can look around and see the mountains, the green grass. There’s a lot more peace and quiet and that makes a big difference…When a man comes up and has a name, we can help him find the record and if someone has submitted a photo, there’s a photo there on the paper. He may not have seen that man since he died … That can be a really hard thing to see, but it helps. This provides a way to finally say goodbye to these people.”
For more information about Chimney Rock VFW Post 9660, call 833-2214.