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Wall is gone, healing begins

Under an umbrella to block the snow, a visitor reflects on the names on the wall just before closing ceremonies of the Vietnam Moving Wall memorial on Monday, November 11, 2013 at West Aurora High School. | Courtesy West Aurora School District

Under an umbrella to block the snow, a visitor reflects on the names on the wall just before closing ceremonies of the Vietnam Moving Wall memorial on Monday, November 11, 2013 at West Aurora High School. | Courtesy West Aurora School District

Joe Toma was hurting, pounding down Aleve on this Tuesday morning in an attempt to get some relief from his aching knees.

After volunteering at the Moving Wall in Aurora for the past five days — he and other committee members “never sat down” and barely ate — the Vietnam veteran was exhausted.

But equally unsettling was the let-down he was now feeling after four days of intense highs.

So many emotions. So many stories.

Like the visitor, an older man of Indian heritage, who made it a point soon after the Wall went up on Thursday of touching every individual name on every panel … an exercise that took him three full hours.

Or the two men who had not seen each other for over 40 years showing up at the same time and same place to pay respect to the same soldier, Chuck Michael Stadel, panel 27w, line 22.

Or the young woman who walked away from the Wall in tears, leaving behind a letter to the soldier who saved her dad’s life so he would eventually be able to adopt her and provide such a wonderful childhood.

There were other stories as well. Ones that touched Toma so personally. So unexpectedly.

Toma’s brother Tony, six years his senior and also an Army veteran, visited the Wall on Sunday. He came with a friend. And together they were searching the panels for the name of Jim Lane.

“I asked Tony if (Jim) had been a classmate,” Toma said. “I didn’t know how else he would have known this soldier.”

That’s when Tony, a helicopter crew chief, told his younger sibling that Lane had flown helicopters with him over Cam Rang Bay in South Vietnam.

Joe Toma looked at his brother in surprise, confusion. Tony had not served in ‘Nam; he’d served overseas in 1962-63 in Rhodesia, South Africa.

At least that’s the story he told his mother.

And in the more than 40 years since, even when his kid brother was shipped off to the jungles, Tony Toma never revealed the truth. Even 24 years ago when he helped secure a helicopter and took aerial photos at the Wall’s 1989 visit in Aurora, he never admitted to his brother he too had served in Vietnam.

Until Sunday morning at the Wall.

Then he broke down and sobbed.

“My brother is the strongest man I know. I have never in my life seen him cry,” said Toma. “But we could hardly hold him up.”

Tony Toma hadn’t planned to reveal this truth.

“It just slipped out,” he said when I asked him about his seven months in Vietnam. “The Wall is extremely emotional … 58,000-plus names. You know the price they paid.”

There were, indeed, many stories to be told. But the tale of the Toma brothers goes a long way in describing why this Vietnam memorial is so important. Time does not heal wounds inflicted by such horror and guilt, Joe insisted, but it does “help release some of the pain so it’s OK to begin to share.”

Mike Smoczynski never talked much about his brother Tom’s death in Vietnam. But at Joe Toma’s request, he stood in front of the hundreds who had gathered for the nondenominational healing service Sunday morning and read a poem that had been written by a Holy Angels teacher Anna Heckel 24 years ago when the Wall was last in Aurora.

After the service, Smoczynski laid a carnation and the framed poem at panel 42W, below his brother’s name.

“He would never have done that in ’89,” said Toma, then added his own final words to the power of the Wall.

“It is draining ... it is emotional ... it is unbelievable.”

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