A group of local veterans gather before boarding a bus to Washington, D.C. More than 50 made the trip to the Nation’s Capital to wash the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Korean War Monument. Michael Hallisey / Spotlight News
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GLENMONT — A weekend in Washington, D.C. can mean time spent at the Smithsonian, or taking in the sight of cherry blossom trees lining the banks of the Potomac: A family’s visit to the seat of our nation’s government. For war veterans, it’s a pilgrimage of a different sort, defined by honor.
Each weekend, from spring until winter, volunteers gather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They meet in front of the stark ebony stone, so dark and polished, their own image is reflected back like a near-flawless mirror. Most of the volunteers are war veterans intending to pay homage to fallen friends, brothers and sisters. They wake up in the early dawn, hours before visitors arrive, to wash off the dust, pollen, and the fingerprints of the nearly 100,000 visitors who arrive each week; many of whom had come to mourn.
Volunteers take soap and water and gently scrub the stone. The act of washing the memorial, one local veteran described, is “emotional.”
Ed Czuchrey, an Air Force veteran and a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, has done it before.
“Most of them have been there and seen it before,” said Czuchrey, “but the rest of them, all inclusive, are going to be proud; proud to be able to do what they’re doing, and I’m proud to see them doing it.”
More than 50 U.S. military veterans, Gold Star and Blue Star families boarded a bus early Friday morning, June 1, on a special mission to Washington, D.C. to clean the Vietnam Memorial and Korean War Monument.
“Our detachment is honored to be a part of this special trip to honor our fallen brothers and sisters,” said William Keyes, Commandant Capt. Wm. Dale O’Brien Detachment, Marine Corps League and Vietnam Veteran.”Even though many of us have been to DC before, this is the first time any of us have will have this honor and privilege of paying special respect.”
Premiere Transportation, Trustco Bank and TALK 1300 AM sponsored a 60-passenger luxury bus — the same used by the Arena Football League’s Albany Empire players — for the six-hour trip to the Nation’s Capital.
For Melody Burns, associate member of the Capt. Wm. Dale O’Brien Detachment Marine Corps League, the trip is the end result of an exhausting three-year effort.
“I was beginning to give up hope we would ever receive a date, after three years and numerous phones calls, I was surprised to receive the call with a date,” said Burns. “I was calling everyone I knew in Washington to see if they could help.”
Burns said it will be a “great honor” to clean the memorial with Vietnam War Veterans. But, she said, not all of the volunteers are veterans of that war. Volunteers will include all sorts of veterans, and Gold Star and Blue Star families, too.
One such veteran said he and his daughter are making the trip to provide support.
“We’re with these guys here — combat vets, Vietnam vets, Korea vets, Gold Star mothers — and this is for them,” said Scott Dilcher, a U.S. Marine veteran, who was joined by his daughter, Heather. “We’re here to support them.”
The group’s itinerary included an initial stop at Arlington National Cemetery to witness the changing of the Guard. That was to be followed by an overnight stay before reporting to “The Wall” at 6 a.m. the next morning, where they expected to spend three hours cleaning both the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Korean War Monument.
For Gold Star father Bob Roberts the trip was a way to remember his daughter, Kristie. His daughter was a medic in the Army National Guard and is one of 22 veterans who are estimated to die by suicide each day. The number, which references a 2012 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs, has since been a rallying cry to provide better support for veterans.
“We’re carrying on Kristie’s legacy, my wife and I,” Bob said, describing his daughter as being “service oriented” and “community-minded.” Since she died six years ago, Bob and his wife Cindy have been working behind the effort to bring better awareness to the issue. Being around fellow Gold Star families, he said, is “therapeutic.
“For me, it’s almost as if we’re going to the cemetery to visit Kristie. It’s our ability to tend to the veterans who have passed.”
Michael Hallisey is Managing Editor of Spotlight Newspapers.