04/19/13 — Salute, at last

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Salute, at last

By Kenneth Fine
Published in The Wall That Heals on April 19, 2013 2:08 PM

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Retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Bruce Maslin salutes the flag while the anthem plays during the opening ceremony of The Wall That Heals. Maslin served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970.

A 68-year-old woman falls to her knees -- tears streaming down her face as she, moments later, extends her hand toward a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

But before Mary Whitley's fingertips made contact with the panel that will forever wear the name of her high school sweetheart, she pulled her arm back -- bringing her hands together in prayer.

"You'll have to excuse me," she said moments later, her voice trembling. "I didn't think it would be this hard. I didn't think it'd hurt this bad."

She had controlled her emotions hours earlier when a group of airmen executed a gun salute -- when a lone bagpiper played "Amazing Grace."

She had "kept it together" when a local chorus broke out into patriotic song -- when a decorated fighter pilot urged her and the others in the crowd to move on with their lives.

But then she saw his name, Billy Ray Anderson, and everything changed.

"I can't. I'm sorry. I just can't," Mrs. Whitley said, pulling herself up and walking toward the parking lot. "I thought I could, but I can't."

The Wall That Heals was opened to the public late Thursday morning after a ceremony that featured everything from a parachute team and a group of patriotic singers to a highly decorated fighter pilot and children pledging their allegiance to the nation he and his comrades fought to defend.

Dr. Kay Albertson, the president of the college that is hosting what she characterized as a "most moving memorial," kicked off the program.

"We are truly honored to host The Wall That Heals," she said. "The opportunity to see and touch your family member's name on home soil is certainly powerful."

But the chance for Wayne Community College to provide a setting for those moments was not the only reason she and her colleagues were excited about the prospect of the replica being housed there.

They saw it, also, as a potentially valuable learning experience for their student body.

"Having the memorial here provides (local students) with the opportunity to interact with another generation," she said. "It is indeed an opportunity to look sacrifice in the eye and to appreciate it."

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry, a Vietnam veteran who flew countless combat missions during the war, said he also sees something that can be learned from the wall.

"Today is also a day for healing -- for closure and reconciliation," he said. "As this Wall That Heals travels, a grateful nation remembers and honors Vietnam veterans for their service.

"But healing, closure, reconciliation, moving on from the past -- these are all things that our loved ones, our lost loved ones would want for us. It's very futile to hold long-standing grudges. We all need to move on from the past. It's not dishonoring our brothers."

Mrs. Whitley said she was touched by Cherry's words, but added it was "easy for people who haven't walked in your shoes to tell you how to feel."

So while she left the grounds grateful that she, at last, had the chance to visit the replica of a memorial she has never been able to face in Washington D.C., her wound will never fully heal.

"It's a beautiful sight. It really is. And I am so happy that people all across this country get to honor these boys for what they did," she said, again choking up. "But he never came home -- and never will. So I'll never be OK. Not today or any day."