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Writing Entry: Finding Solace at the Wall

Written by Tim Lambert, WITF Multimedia News Director | Jan 15, 2018 6:27 AM

LEAD-IN:

You're listening to WITF's Morning Edition....I'm Tim Lambert.

A York County high school has been honoring military veterans since 2010 by organizing honor bus rides to Washington D.C.

The goal of Northeastern High School's effort is to show its appreciation for their service by taking them to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, World War Two memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.

Among the 80 veterans on hand for the last trip were dozens who served in Vietnam.

But for at least one of them, coming to terms with the war remains a struggle -- decades after the last U.S. troops left the country.

STORY OPENS WITH NAT SOUND: 

Veteran: "I gotta get down there and see my guys."

LAMBERT:

To the Vietnam veterans in the group, only one stop matters -- "The Wall."

It's where the names of more than 58,000 men and women who lost their lives in the war from 1957 to 1975 are engraved in the black granite stone.

NAT SOUND:

*Men chatting*

LAMBERT:

A light, steady rain is falling as they make their way down a sloping pathway.

NAT SOUND: 

Veteran 1: "There's the start of the names."

Veteran 2: "There's the start of the names, right here."

LAMBERT: 

Each panel of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is sunken into the ground.

It rises in height as you walk -- one panel is taller than the next until it reaches a height of just over 10 feet.

Then it descends again and the final panel is only eight inches high.

NAT SOUND:

Veteran 1: "Now does this go back to '61 when the first guy was killed over there?"

Veteran 2: "'61, the first one."

Veteran 1: "'Cause he was in my outfit."

LAMBERT:

The veterans break off into small groups to search for names of friends who never came home.

NAT SOUND:

Woman: "What are you...What are you looking for? The name?"

Jeff Butch: "Lonnie Newland."

Woman: "Alright. Just a second. Because I got the book. I'm just trying to help these guys."

Jeff Butch: "Yeah...go ahead."

LAMBERT:

The men are now in their 60s and 70s -- including one who's sporting a Black Marine Corps baseball cap with a red bill and a brown leather jacket with the famed Marine Corps emblem.

JEFF BUTCH: 

"My name is Jeff Butch. I'm from Lancaster, Pennsylvania."

LAMBERT:

Butch and the others  are paying their respects to buddies lost long ago -- who are forever young to the men standing before a simple name.

JEFF BUTCH:

"When I look at their names, I see their faces. I see who they are. I remember them. I kind of smile inside because I knew who they where. Though I miss 'em. Nothing I can ever do will bring 'em back."

LAMBERT: 

For Jeff Butch, who stands about six-two, just being in this place -- in front of these names -- is affecting him both physically and emotionally.

JEFF BUTCH:

"I sometimes sit and think, 'Was that just a dream? Was I really there?' It's just amazing...It's hard to think I was there 40-some...46 years ago."

LAMBERT: 

Butch, who served two tours in 'Nam, has been here once before.

Still, his eyes are wide with a bit of an incredulous look.

JEFF BUTCH:

"What a waste of human...look at all the...I mean...we didn't win. We didn't lose, but we did't win..."

LAMBERT:

Facing the wall while he talks, he's focused on a pair of names.

JEFF BUTCH:

"Two close guys I knew real well who were killed. One guy cured jungle rot on my face and back."

LAMBERT:

But, it's the death of Marine Private First Class Lonnie Pitts Newland of Pinellas Park, Florida, on November first, 1969, that's seared into Jeff's memory.

JEFF BUTCH:

"My first casualty I saw in Vietnam was back in September of '69. He was 19-years-old. They said, 'Stay with him Butch and keep him breathing." He's there breathing...sucking for air. He's looking at me and he says something...he says, 'I can't breathe.' He just slowly leans back and you hear the gurgling. Drowns in his own blood. I cried like a baby. What are you going to do? That's my first time I ever saw death. They can't train you for that.

NAT SOUND -- Plane flies overhead

JEFF BUTCH:

I know he's buried in Florida. I got the stuff off the Internet. Finally after 40 some years, I found him. (Lambert: "Yeah?") I got his picture. I printed it off. I have the home address of where he lived. But, I don't know if his parents still live there, if they're still alive or who's down there. I'm trying to contact him."

LAMBERT:

For Jeff, the healing process has long been a work in progress.

But in listening to him, he's still coming to grips with his time in the jungle and how difficult it was blending in when his last tour was up.

JEFF BUTCH:

"When I came home, nobody cared about us. I mean when I went to college, I didn't even tell anyone I was a Marine Corps vet, a Vietnam vet because they would call you names and talk to you and treat you different. That was the hardest thing for me to get over and I don't know if I'm still really over it 100 percent was how Americans treated us as...they only one at the airport was my mom and my dog. She got me a dog. They were the only ones there to meet me. That was a deep scar for me. (Lambert: Yeah.) The way the public treated us."

LAMBERT: 

As water drips from the bill of his ball cap, Butch doesn't seem to notice the rain has picked up again.

JEFF BUTCH:

"You almost kind of think you're doing honor for the men you knew...acutally were young kids, they weren't even men. You just kind of think you're coming here to honor them and to know, 'Hey I didn't forget about you... I know you're here."

NAT SOUND: Rain

JEFF BUTCH:

"It's crazy."

LAMBERT:

Former Marine Jeff Butch says he's become more involved in several veteran's organizations, so he can be there for former service members who served in Iraq -- or the war that has long surpassed Vietnam as the nation's longest -- Afghanistan.

He adds he's proud they're getting the "Thank you's" they deserve and -- without a hint of bitterness in his voice -- notes how far the country has come in treating returning veterans with honor and respect.

MUSIC FADES IN: Johnny Cash, Drive On

"Well, I got a friend named Whiskey Sam. He was my boonierat buddy for a year in Nam. He said I think my country got a little off track. Took 'em twenty five years to welcome me back.."

MUSIC FADES UNDER

LAMBERT:

But, Jeff's story doesn't end there.

Remember how he said he wanted to find the family of Lonnie Newland?

Well...after the honor bus trip, he came across a website that featured Newland's picture -- and it also had a post from his sister.

JEFF BUTCH:

I thought, "Wow, maybe I can find out who this person is and where she lives and get to call her." So, I did a post on the website too, saying, you know...."My name is Jeff  Butch and I was with Lonnie. I was the last person he saw alive." Maybe three to four weeks afterwards, I get a phone call from Valerie Dean. She left her number and this is Lonnie's sister. So, I thought, "Oh my gosh. I can't believe it. After all these years, I finally get to talk to somebody from the family."

So, his sister was so happy that she could talk to somebody that was with him when he died...that he didn't die alone. 

Being able to talk to his sister really made me feel good and like she said, it was like therapy for both of us.

LAMBERT:

Later this fall, Jeff Butch will be taking part in the Reading of the Names of all the men and women killed in Vietnam.

MUSIC FADES UP:

It's part of commemoration of the Wall's 35th Anniversary.

He has been assigned a total of 60 names to recite on November 10th.

Among them is Lonnie Newland.

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