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"If you haven't done so, take time to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester. It is a spiritual and powerful place. It is a place of sorrow, but it is a place of healing.

My visit to the memorial at Highland Park South was during a reception for corporate sponsors, volunteers, contributors and the press. It was supposed to be one of those after-work appearances - a few handshakes, a couple of meatballs and I'm out of there. It's not that I don't care about community events, or honoring Vietnam Veterans. But it had been a long day and my kids needed me home that night.

And I've never been much for the 'Nam Vet scene - the tattered jungle hats and black POW flags. I was just 20 when I went there, and memories have been blurred by nearly three decades of living, working and raising a family. I think most Vietnam Veterans feel the same way, despite the stereotypes.

But something stirred when I walked up to the hospitality tent and saw the stubby, green bottles of "33" label beer stacked up in a shallow tray of ice. Ba-Me-Ba beer, warm. It tasted awful, and still does. But it was popular with the troops there - perhaps because the number meant good luck in Southeast Asia. The recognition of a forgotten image came flooding over me. It brought memories of hovering helicopters pounding the air on a damp tropical night. Soon I was surrounded by other vets, who seem to have a sixth sense that enables them to find each other at such gatherings. And once they do, they tend to bond as old friends. Whatever their experiences "in country," they share a common war story about their return to a divided nation. In that hurt and the healing of the past 20 years, they all share. Even today, you often hear vets greet each other with "Welcome home, brother." It is a delayed compensation for a celebration denied in the days of My Lai and Kent State.

I left the reception and walked down a hill to Rochester's Walk of Honor, lined with 280 plaques inscribed with the names of men killed or missing.I paid special attention to the years 1969-'70, and I paid special attention to the Navy, I know many who died in Vietnam and I have grieved them. In that there is closure. But I carry an unresolved grief in wondering what happened to friends and classmates I'd lost track of - in boot camp, in survival training, in riverboat school, on the Soi Rap River and after. I've done that grim search at the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. and several other memorials in the six states I've lived in since returning from Vietnam.I have found the names of those I knew had died. But I've never found a name that surprised me, thank God. Still, there are always new names that affect me.

The one I found on this day was Christopher Senese. He was born July 24, 1948, one day after I was. He attended Rochester's East High the same years I attended high school in Minnesota. He went to Vietnam the same time I did. My tour of duty lasted a year. His tour ended on April 13, 1969. As I stood looking at the plaque of a 20 year old named Christopher Senese, I felt the same helplessness, the same sadness for this stranger I feel for those I have known.

I touched the stainless steel bollard and thought: "Welcome home." I walked to my car, drove east on 490 and went home to continue my life. My son has piano lessons. My daughter needs a ride to the mall. My wife wants me to help her work in the garden. My 48th birthday's coming up this week. Christopher Senese would have celebrated his, too, the day after mine."

Tom Callinan
Editor and Vice President of News
Democrat & Chronicle
"Vietnam memorial a spiritual place"
July 21, 1996