They went to the wall together and cried.
“It was like going to meet a friend...and finally saying goodbye.”
Henry Decoteau of Vineyard Haven was a career man in the Air Force, not a fellow familiar with tears. But when he and his wife Bette traveled to Washington last week to be part of the National Salute to Viet Nam Veterans, the weight of emotion was almost too much.
“Yes, I cried at the wall,” Mr. Decoteau said fighting back more tears. “I cried at the parade too...because all the people along the way were saying thanks.
“I will never forget it. Never. Never. Never.”
Bette Decoteau went back because the war was hers too.
“I met Hank after the war,” she said. “But I wake up with him when he wakes up with the chills. During those summer thunderstorms when he’s jolted, I’m with him.”
David Madeiras of Oak Bluffs went to the wall reluctantly.
“It was impossible for me to look at it the first time,” he said. “I went away and walked around the city....I did go up finally. I can still feel the sadness.
“There were the names of seven guys up there that I’ll never know. All I know is they saved my life one night.”
Mr. Madeiras said he experienced a tremendous sadness during the entire weekend, “a tremendous dignified sadness.”
“But, you know, I finally had the realization that I’m not alone,” he said.
“There are thousands and thousands of us. I think I’d forgotten that.”
Last week more than 100,000 Viet Nam veterans journeyed to Washington for a tribute to their collective courage. They organized the event themselves, and raised the $7 million for the memorial to those 57,939 of them who died - a black granite wall bearing 57,939 names.
Mr. Decoteau went as the state representative of the American Legion and marched at the front of the 1,300-member Massachusetts delegation.
Mr. Madeiras went along with Woody Williamson and Gary Lewis, also of the Vineyard, because the Viet Nam veterans here all pitched in to put on raffles, food sales and mailings asking for contribution. They raised enough to send three men, and they were the lucky ones.
“The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since I got back,” Mr. Madeiras said. “I’m trying to go over it all, for all the other vets who couldn’t be there. They’ve been trying to grab up everything they can get from the newspapers and television.”
He’s telling these men that the Viet Nam veteran is perhaps stronger and more powerful now, more concerned about taking care of his fellow veteran.
“These guys were all so proud of what they did.”
Walking around Washington, he said, was like walking around his hometown on a Sunday morning. Everywhere he looked he saw someone with whome he shared a bond. “We were brothers and were all searching for faces that we knew.
“It will be quite a while before I get it all straightened out in my head.”
Mr. Decoteau said he expects the event will represent a turning point for the Viet Nam veteran. As they walked 30 abreast down Constitution avenue, hugging, crying, laughing, he said the survivors of Viet Nam experienced a charge of energy that will propel them into the future.
The pain of the past won’t go away, he said, but the determination to get on with the business of living and working and loving has been given a tremendous boost.
Mrs. Decoteau watched with a mixture of awe, sadness and joy as hundreds of men put aside their appearance of strength to express their feelings, often in a flood of tears.
“It was such an emotionally explosive weekend,” she said.
“It seemed that everything that went on was just what these guys needed. They all recognized that it was a time to mourn. You could see that they all knew it was okay to let out something they’d been keeping inside for too long.
“And I didn’t pick up one negative vibe. There were 100,000 people and out of all those people not one smirk, just a lot of love and understanding and sharing.”
Henry Decoteau is still riding high. “It took us 15 years, but we’re finally home,” he said. “We’re finally home.”
The Vineyard delegation went to Washington with honor and respect and to remember the tragic losses of a war this country wanted to forget. And they remembered and noted with pride other Vineyard comrade whose honored names are now inscribed on that black granite wall. Among them are:
Daniel Stephen Bettencourt, 22, corporal, Marine Corps, Edgartown.
William Thomas Hagerty, 21, SP4, Army, Vineyard Haven.
John Robert Painter, 26, lieutenant, Navy, Vineyard Haven.