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Veterans Day

Native vets observe 25th anniversary of Vietnam Veterans Memorial

WASHINGTON - On Nov. 11, Vietnam veterans, their friends, families and grateful countrymen gathered by the thousands at a place on the National Mall they call simply ''The Wall'' - the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

It's a place known for the profoundest emotions, emotions the reflecting black panels have helped millions explore. The Wall panels hold the names of more than 58,000 who died in Vietnam or remain missing. As on almost any day year-round, only more so on Veterans Day, men and women stood before the ghostly brigade of engraved characters, remembered and communed with people once known to them, and found something that goes by the name of healing.

''As others are healing, I look at them and there are tears in their eyes,'' said Lee Bitsui, a Navajo Vietnam veteran. ''And I can feel that ... you can feel the healing at that time.''

If the 25th anniversary of The Wall lived up to any one theme, healing was it. Several of the day's speakers said in so many words that America has learned to heal its warriors and to heal from war at The Wall. Although the war in Iraq, unpopular now as Vietnam was four decades ago, was officially off-limits, Bitsui said Iraq veterans are being honored. It was different for Vietnam vets, he added.

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''What was it like then? Avoid protesters, get out of your uniform fast, kind of dodge around in public. That was the scene. ... We're no baby killers no more! ... A protester was always there, calling names and that sort of thing. I don't think America wants that to happen again. ... There's a feeling for our young warriors, not just Indian but all veterans.''

That would help to explain the attitude of the veterans themselves. In some ways, the occasion seemed akin to a massive tailgater outside a football stadium. Neighborliness and good nature were out in force, smiles were as common as camouflage jackets, folk songs broke out at a couple of the Vietnam-themed statues near The Wall, and everywhere people posed for group snapshots. Once the crowd had gravitated toward the speakers' dais, cell phone conversations broke out all over, guiding friends toward friends through the throng.

''I was thrilled by it all,'' Bitsui said. ''Always feel good when I'm among the Vietnam veterans. ... Overall it's good. Good experience. Good relief. And I'll always do anything I can for veterans, all veterans.''

He had come as commander of the Steamboat (Ariz.) Veterans Organization, approved by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to lay a wreath on behalf of the Navajo Nation's 215 fallen soldiers and all American Indians still missing in action. Bitsui issued an open invitation for all Navajo veterans to take part in the wreath-laying of Nov. 11 and the previous day's parade, commemorating the 25th anniversary of The Wall. About 75 Navajo vets participated, he said, acknowledging that the count includes their families - his own among them, as a daughter and son-in-law, a paratrooper, came down from New Jersey with four cameras to join him. They had a great couple of days, Bitsui said.

They weren't alone. Many other Indian veterans and many other families took part in the parade or lined its route. Numerous veterans' chapters and support groups from across the nation laid similar wreaths at the base of The Wall, all of them approaching their own reflections with slow care, as if spellbound by the hallowed trumpet notes of 'Taps' - sounded to honor the good and brave at their going, gone but not forgotten.