WASHINGTON – Bowie resident Linda Tucker was nervous as she crossed the stage to the podium, clutching a white piece of paper. With a shaky breath, and drawing strength from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial behind her, she spoke the first name on her list.
“Leroy Williams Jr.”
Tucker did not know Williams or any of the 30 fallen veterans whose names she read Thursday. But she did have two uncles who fought in Vietnam. It was for them — and for the “next generation to understand never to do this again and that a soldier is a soldier and they need respect” — that Tucker was reading names from the wall.
Tucker, 31, is one of 2,000 people, most from the Washington region, who volunteered to recite all 58,229 names on the wall for its 20th anniversary.
The commemoration began Wednesday with a musical tribute. The name recitation began in the late afternoon on Thursday and ran until midnight, with readings scheduled from 5 a.m. to midnight Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The weekend will culminate Monday with the annual Veterans Day observance at the wall.
The commemoration is sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, a nonprofit organization that built the memorial and develops educational programs about the war. The fund took out newspaper and radio ads recruiting volunteers from around the country.
After hearing one of the radio ads, Judith Montanaro, 63, of Silver Spring quickly called to volunteer.
“It’s not that I lost anybody close to me,” in Vietnam, Montanaro said. But the war “was a very tragic thing . . . and I feel a great responsibility to all those who went and served and lost their lives,” she said.
Montanaro was in her early 20s during the war and worked as a high school teacher in Chevy Chase. All three of her younger brothers were in the military, but it was her youngest brother who did two tours of duty in Vietnam, she said. He survived, but is still unable to discuss the war because of its emotional impact on him, Montanaro said.
Besides honoring those who died, Montanaro said she wants to recite the names for those like her brother “who can’t even face” it.
Andy Rivera, 48, of Germantown sees the recitation of names as a way to “break down that barrier” of silence created by veterans.
“They don’t want to go (to the wall) because they just felt that maybe the war was wrong,” Rivera said.
He planned on bringing a co-worker to the ceremony, a Vietnam veteran who has never seen the memorial. Though not a veteran himself, Rivera said he hopes the ceremony will allow his friend a chance to reflect.
For Rivera reciting the names seemed “a great way to show respect” and honor those who died for the country, he said.
Tucker understands the hesitation veterans have about visiting the wall from working at the Veteran Service Organization. Her uncles chose never to share their stories. She learned about the very personal aspects of the war and its effects from veterans she met at her job.
Pointing to the crowd of vets in front of wall before she went on stage, Tucker said, “this is a healing process 30 years too late.”
As the sun finished its descent behind the trees, Tucker read the last name on her sheet and slowly began walking off stage, thinking of her uncles and choking back tears.