WASHINGTON — Vietnam veterans like to say they are "visiting" names on the stark granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Former Marine John Krankus, a 47-year-old accountant from Yonkers, N.Y., visits a handful whenever he comes to Washington.
On this particular afternoon--a day before the 10th anniversary of the dedication of "The Wall" and a week after the election of a new President with a controversial Vietnam War-era draft record--he has reason to be even more contemplative than usual.
He has heard talk this Veterans Day week that the election of Gov. Bill Clinton may prove that America has put the divisive Vietnam War behind it. But he is not so certain.
After communing with the names of his fallen comrades, Krankus steps away. "I have a hard time reconciling coming down to honor this memorial and living with a President who avoided the draft," he said.
Then, somewhat hopefully, somewhat skeptically, he added: "Maybe he'll do something for Vietnam veterans and then we can say it's behind us."
Along with Krankus, thousands of Vietnam veterans have crowded into the capital this week to mark the anniversary of the memorial--perhaps the most moving monument of all in a city replete with marble enormities honoring scores of heroes and leaders. Even at less celebrated times, veterans, relatives and tourists come by the hundreds and thousands to touch the engraved names with their fingertips, to fashion mementos by rubbing charcoal against a slip of paper over a name, to pose by the wall for a photo.
The election of Bill Clinton demonstrates that the draft issue, raised again and again by President Bush and other Republicans, was too anemic to avert the Democrat's victory. The electorate was clearly willing to accept a President who had opposed and avoided one of the most painful wars in American history.
Citing his center's polls throughout the campaign, Donald S. Kellermann, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press, said: "While most Americans followed the debate over Clinton's Vietnam draft status closely, they did not think the issue mattered enough to influence their vote."
For the Vietnam veterans, however, the problem is more complex. Many have long felt apart from the rest of the nation. They are the only veterans of an American war who came home without ticker-tape parades and glory. They even dress differently from other veterans, eschewing American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars uniforms for old combat jackets bearing slogans across the back and colorful baseball caps identifying Vietnam veterans organizations.
Some veterans, far from fretting over the Clinton draft issue, gather hope from the election. Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran who came up with the idea of the memorial, has long talked of the wall as a means of dissolving the bitterness and anger left by the war within American society. He now describes Clinton's election as an opportunity to realize that goal. In his view, Clinton's personal struggle over the war may be more important than his having avoided it.
"The Vietnam generation has assumed the mantle of leadership," Scruggs told a news conference a few days ago. "The election campaign has given us an opportunity to help the healing."
The point was echoed by Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D-Pa.) as he spoke Tuesday to a conference of Vietnam veterans across the Potomac River in northern Virginia.
"With President Clinton, I think you are going to have an ear that can listen to your proposals. I think he will be very sensitive to that," said Kanjorski, who served in the Army between the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Later, he elaborated on the theme in an interview. "The most important event in Clinton's adult life was this war," he said. "You would have thought that the first new-generation President would have come out of the Vietnam War. But that did not happen, because it is a war that we have not yet resolved in our psyche.
"The Vietnam veterans don't hold a lot against the guys who didn't serve," he said. "They wonder themselves what purpose they served by fighting."
But a less conciliatory note was sounded at the conference by Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). In a letter read to the Vietnam veterans by one of his aides, Dole pointedly congratulated them for their service. "The Vietnam veterans did not dodge and did not fail," the Dole letter said.
Yet, it was Kanjorski's optimistic and non-combative tone that was echoed by many veterans at the wall--albeit with some wariness. Dale Kusmiez, a machinist in South Bend, Ind., is 46, Clinton's age. The back of his jacket bears the slogan "Together Then, Together Again" and notes that he served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.
"I quit high school in 1966, two months before graduation, and joined the Army," he said quietly. "A lot of kids went to Canada in those days. Dan Quayle was really in the same boat as Clinton.