“Hey, Dad, were you in a war?”

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By Brian Delate
Even the God of War is no match for love… –PLATO

It’s a late sunny afternoon, when I hear my daughter Tirsa, now in sixth grade, arrive home from school. She runs in, drops her school backpack with a thud and heads upstairs to where my home office is in Pennsylvania. She gives me a brief energetic hug and steps back. “Hey, Dad, were you in a war?” I turn and point to the pictures next to the window that overlook the front yard. She notices a small framed snapshot on my desk and says, “Who’s that you’re with in that picture?” “He was a good friend, Buster, but we called him Boysahn, because he didn’t have to shave.” “Wow, Boysahn’s cute, but so were you, Dad.” Then I mumble, “Twenty-Three W.” “What’s that?” “Nothing Sweetie.”

Tirsa glances at the other pictures along with a couple of certificates I received and asks, “So, then you’re a veterinarian?” I laugh and add, “No, sweetie, I’m a veteran.” Now she laughs and then points to a framed photograph of The Wall in Washington, D.C. This picture is special, because my mentor and good friend Ellen Burstyn shot it and gave it to me as a present. At this time, I was developing my play Memorial Day at the Actors Studio. Ellen was a phenomenal guide. The work, both as a writer and performer was a huge challenge and so I was forced to dig deep to realize and shape what would become the play. Memorial Day took on the issues of PTS or PTSD and suicide prevention, along with replicating combat. “Dad, can we go there?” “To The Wall, sure.”

Fast forward – my wife, Karen and Tirsa and I head for D.C. to see Karen’s cousin for a long spring weekend, with those magnificent cherry trees in bloom. Late morning the next day, Karen and her cousin are off to the Smithsonian as Tirsa and I head to The Wall. It’s overcast and close to seventy degrees. Karen and I had been to The Wall before and I had visited it at other times. This time felt different and Tirsa was curious. “When did they build this, Dad?” “1982.” As we near the site, we could see people gathered, but couldn’t see The Wall yet.

The vendors nearby are selling everything from ice cream and Americana trinkets to war memorabilia. We stop at a long table covered with stacks of military baseball caps and unit pins. “Which one is yours, Dad?” “See that little blue shield with the four white stars?” She nods. “That was the unit I served in, the Americal Division.” I touch that same pin on the collar of my jean jacket. “Would you like one, T?” She smiles.
“Excuse me, how much is that pin?” The chubby and exhausted-looking woman says indifferently, “Ten dollars.” I start to boil. ‘What the…’ My daughter sees the emotional darkness in me about to erupt. “Are you… How dare you charge that much!?” Now I see fear in this woman’s face. She tries to regroup, “I… I just work here, sorry.” As I’m about to turn the table over, Tirsa takes my arm and says quickly, “Dad, you have your pin, that’s what counts.” She pulls me away and I’m glad, but now I’m angry.

As we approach where you begin the walk from one end to the other I start to tremble and shake all over. I freeze. ‘Oh, shit what’s going on?’ My experiences here prior were solemn and quiet. Now I feel my vulnerability and hidden heartbreak rising to the surface. I don’t understand, I’ve been working through all this post-war madness with therapy, timeless rituals with other vets and my theatre work. I learn in this moment there is no graduating from this event that has left myself and many others forever changed. But now the deep affection I feel for my daughter is somehow colliding with this moment.

“Dad, are you okay?” As we stand together I can’t look at my daughter. “I… I’m…” Now my throat locks up and my breath shortens. ‘Oh, Man…’ I look down along The Wall and I see a bear of a black man, about my age, who I feel might be watching me. He wears a Vietnam Veteran hat and the insignia for the 101st Airborne. With his large sunglasses on his face, I wonder, ‘Is he looking at me?’ “Dad, do you want to go?” “Umm… Well, I…” Then, this bear of a man walks up to us and reads my situation immediately. He smiles and puts his hand on Tirsa’s shoulder. “Is this your Pop?” “Yes, yes and he’s a veteran.” As he extends his hand to me, “I’m Wilson, a volunteer here. With your Pop’s permission I’ll tell you about this very special place.” As I reach out to shake his hand, “Please, take over. I’m Brian and this is Tirsa.” My breathing gradually returns and I nod a thank you. ‘ Phew! Saved by a fellow veteran.’

The three of us begin the walk along The Wall. Wilson extends both his arms, which point to both ends of The Wall. “This end points directly to the Lincoln Memorial and that end points to the Washington Monument.” I’m so relieved. Wilson is kind and polite with Tirsa and she welcomes this private tour. “This granite used for the memorial is from India.” Then he turns to me, “Would you like to look anybody up or have you done this before?” “Thanks, yes I have.” We continue to walk – so many names! As we near the names for the years 1969 and 1970, when I served, I want say a couple things, but not today. Then Tirsa suddenly pauses and steps close into one of the higher panels, Twenty-Three W. She notices her reflection. I notice where she stands ‘Oh, my goodness…’

We continue to the other end and finish the walk. Tirsa puts her hand out, “Thanks, Mr. Wilson.” Wilson smiles, “No, honey, my first name is Wilson. And you’re welcome.” As Tirsa pulls out her camera, “Can we all take a picture together?” “Sure.” A sharply dressed and attractive woman, with red hair sees we need someone to take the picture. “May I help?” Tirsa hands her the camera.

Tirsa pushes herself between me and Wilson and we all smile. Snap, snap, snap and the woman hands the camera back to Tirsa. I lean into Wilson and eye to eye, I say softly, “Welcome Home, Brother.” Wilson takes this in and as we embrace in a strong hug, he replies, “Welcome Home!” Tirsa notices this private exchange, “Why are you guys saying, Welcome Home?” Wilson looks at me to see if I want to tell her and I defer a look to him. “When your dad and I came home, ‘Welcome Home’ is what we didn’t hear.”
Tirsa eyes us both and says, “Can I say it? Wilson and I nod, “You bet! Sure can!” “Okay, then, Welcome Home! Welcome Home!”

As Wilson gives his attention to other visitors, Tirsa and I walk away. “He was a nice man.” “Yes, he was.” “Dad, is your friend Boysahn there on The Wall?” I stop and look briefly back to The Wall, then at my daughter. “The one place you just happened to stop was in front of the panel where his name is.” “Twenty-Three W” “Oh… I did?” I blink back a tear and smile. Tirsa takes my hand and we walk off.

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