Kenneth Bopp, CRNA, attended the then-18-month program at St. John's Hospital School of Nurse Anesthesiology in Springfield, Illinois (now Sangamon State University School of Anesthesia), graduating in 1962. He served in Vietnam from February 1967 to February 1968 as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA). This is his story of facing all that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall represented to him.
I could tell a war story as well as the next guy, and had been for quite awhile. A number of people I worked with had been there and while one of them never had much to say about it, the rest of us told our stories often. Strangely we always left out the most traumatic of our times there. Of course we did not recognize this. Denial, I suppose, or an unrecognized sense that the rest of our co-workers did not want to hear about "that sort of thing." Anyway, I thought I was home free and did not suffer from the problems that a lot of the vets had with readjusting to life. I had a good job, a loving family and was essentially happy. Of course most of the pictures of that time were either missing or put away in some box or other and never brought out. I guess the traumatic memories had been placed aside also because I remained at ease and comfortable with my life. Oh, there were the usual family problems that always seem to crop up, but other families were dealing with like problems also.
Captain Kenneth Bopp, CRNA, serving in Vietnam
Then something happened that shook me to my foundations. It did not come from another vet. It did not come from anyone in my family. It did not come from any of my friends or co-workers. It came in the mail, in a plain brown wrapper. It came in the form of the National Geographic, Vol. 167, No. 5, May 1985. I will remember that day as long as I live for that was when I was awakened to whom I was, where I had been, and where I was going. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall had been in existence for almost two and a half years at this point, and I really knew nothing of it. I was about to find out.
I opened the book and began to read. I was by myself on the back porch, with the rest of the family in the house doing their thing. Of course I skimmed the pictures first because that is what you do with each copy of National Geographic. I read in a sort of stuttering fashion, going back and rereading some passages. As I read further, I found myself having to really struggle to read the print and suddenly realized that I was trying to read through tears. Those tears eventually turned into sobs. Wracking sobs that I was afraid of. Apparently everyone else in the house was afraid of them also because not a soul put their head out the door to see what was wrong with Dad. I stayed out on the porch for a long time that night. I could not read any further. In fact, it took me almost a week to get through the entire article.
I was stunned. I felt like a different person. Someone I did not even recognize. I felt like everyone in the family was walking on eggshells; like they were afraid of me or afraid that anything they said or did would send me off into another crying jag. I guess I would have felt the same way if I had been in their position. A grown man crying for God’s sake. They must have been frightened out of their minds.
As time went by I found that I could not listen to any music from the Sixties. One day Tracks of my Tears came on the radio while I was on the way to the grocers and I had to pull off the road into a driveway because I could not see. Tears again. I tried not listening to any golden oldies stations but to no avail. The music was in my head all the time.
Prior to all this personal turmoil, my family had been trying to deal with the fact that my son was an addict. In the process of his treatment my son and I attended a family night at his recovery center. Of course AA and Alanon were mentioned frequently. I finally asked the counselor if he thought it might be a good idea if I got involved in Alanon. He laughed and said that he knew all along that I wasn’t completely stupid. I had remarked at several meetings that I was a Vietnam vet and he also told me that Alanon might help me deal with any problems in that area. I told him I was more worried about my son than myself. No response. Just a knowing look. I began attending Alanon meetings. I was the only male in the room and almost left, but one elderly lady took me by the arm and said it would be all right, that I was in the right place. It took a long time but eventually I spoke to the fact that I was a Vietnam vet and I was emotionally in need. Those ladies encouraged me to talk about my feelings. I came to the conclusion that the only way I could heal was to visit The Wall, and that visit must be made alone. God what a frightening thought. I knew that nobody else would understand this, let alone my family. I began to make plans in my head. The journey occupied almost all of my "thinking time," as I had never done anything like this in my life. Even the trip to Vietnam was made in the company of others even though I knew none of them.
Captain Bopp in the operating room, Long Binh, Vietnam.
The day came for me to leave but my motorcycle was still in the shop. I was walking around swearing and totally bummed. My son came up to me and told me he had spoken to the owner of the motorcycle shop and my bike would be ready in an hour. He told me many years later that he had called the shop and told the owner that I was going to The Wall and that I really needed to go. At the time I knew nothing of this.
I left on the trip in high spirits and great anticipation. My wife was thoroughly angry but managed to keep this from me. Again I was made aware of this many years later by my kids. She thought the whole thing a waste of time and completely unnecessary. This I realized many years later during an argument. I had no idea she felt the way she did. Since that time I have the feeling she blamed me for our son’s addiction. She felt I should have been home to help raise him in his earlier years. I guess all those left behind dealt with that time in their own way. None better than the other.
The trip was an absolute dream. I saw some beautiful scenery and had fantastic weather. I arrived in D.C. on a Sunday. I really had no idea where I was except that I was near my destination. After checking into a motel and cleaning off some of the road grime, I went to the front desk and asked the man at the desk for directions to the mall. Surprisingly enough he told me to take the road out front across the bridge, and the mall would be on my right as I got off the bridge. I cannot describe the excitement I felt. Just like a kid going to the amusement park for the day.
I literally floated out to the bike and headed for the mall. There it was, and there was a parking spot right next to The Wall, right next to the sign that said Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I was ecstatic.
As I took off my helmet and put it away, a strange feeling enveloped me. I shuddered as a chill passed through me. I shook it off and walked up the slight rise and looked around for the listing book. The elderly lady that welcomed me to my first Alanon meeting had given me a box of medals that belonged to her nephew who was one of those killed in Vietnam. He had no other relatives and the medals had been forwarded to her. She had no idea what to do with them and asked me if I would take them with me. She had read that some people left mementos at The Wall and asked if it would be proper for me to do this for her. I started forward to look up his name in the book.
All of a sudden I found myself shaking. I could not do this. I turned around and walked back to the bike. I smoked a couple of cigarettes and decided that I was being ridiculous. I again walked toward the listing book and again I started shaking and could not walk a step further. All this time I had not even turned toward the memorial. All I saw of it was in my peripheral vision. I turned and walked back to the bike and my cigarettes.
After awhile I decided to walk around the mall, taking my time and approaching the memorial from the other side. I came at the memorial from the other end and was doing all right. I stood looking at the statue of the three troopers and still felt fairly calm. Just then a man about my age approached the statue and reached out; grasping the hand of the lead trooper and sank to his knees, crying. I lost it, retreating back the way I had come. I still did not register the fact that I had not looked at the memorial directly.
I finally walked over to the trees and sat down, still not looking directly at the Wall. Again the cigarettes. I finally looked up and was struck with the stark beauty of this place. The Wall was magnificent. I could actually see the reflection of the visitors even from where I was sitting. I eventually arose and strolled along the edge of the trees, looking at and seeing this "healing place" in all its glory.
I finally approached the listing book from my original starting point. I looked up the names of those I wanted to visit and finally began my walk along The Wall.
The first name I went to on The Wall was that of the nephew of the lady friend in my Alanon group back home. I found the name easily and opened the box of medals and placed it, with a note from his aunt, at the base of the wall beneath his name. I stepped back and in my mind spoke to him and explained how I happened to be there. As I spoke to him, my gaze took in the many names carved around his. I started to cry, silently.
A blinding flash of realization came to me. I might have taken care of some of these men during my tour in Vietnam. Yet I did not remember even one of the names or faces of those placed in my charge as a nurse anesthetist! I remembered one trooper I was caring for in the emergency admit ward at 3rd Surg. He had multiple fragment wounds of the abdomen and a penetrating wound of the left eye. The eye wound had been deemed not serious enough to transfer him to another unit with an eye surgeon at that time. He needed his belly taken care of first. While waiting to take him to the operating room and anesthetize him for exploratory surgery, we talked. He kept saying, "What a terrible way to die." I kept reassuring him that his wounds were not that severe and that he was not going to die; he would probably lose the left eye but he would survive. He eventually calmed and stopped talking about dying. As the bearers came to take him to the operating room, he looked at me, grabbed my hand and all of a sudden blood began pouring from the eye wound and from his mouth, nose and ear and he died. He died while listening to me lying and telling him he was going to be all right and I cannot to this day remember that poor boy’s name or his face.
I was desolate. They deserved so much better from me. The tears flowed freely as I apologized to them all for not remembering them. Oh, I remembered them all right, but they were just cases, procedures that I had been involved in. I remembered being asked to decide if I thought a trooper could possibly survive massive lung burns, and after looking at him rendered the opinion that he would not. He was placed in the expectant area. Not on my opinion alone, but I participated in the decision to let him be. If he was still alive after we finished working with those that would probably survive then we would try to save him in the face of impossible odds. He died and I cannot remember his name, if I ever even knew it.
As I stood there in my grief, an elderly gentleman and his wife approached me. They also had tears in their eyes. The lady sort of hung back a step or two. I asked them if they had lost someone on the wall and he nodded slowly. Then he spread his arms wide and said, "All of them, all of them. Such a terrible, terrible waste." We both broke out in sobs and wrapped our arms around each other. As we held on for dear life, the lady stepped up and started patting our shoulders saying, "It’s all right boys, it’s all right." She eventually led the old gentleman away with her arm around his shoulder speaking softly to him. As they walked away, she turned to me and quietly said, "He’ll be all right now." I turned to the panels, still full of tears and wondered why anyone in their right mind would want to come to this place of sorrow. What the hell had I gotten myself into by coming here?
I was obviously not prepared for any of these feelings. I was certainly not prepared for all these tears for I had not brought a handkerchief or even any tissues. All I had was my sleeve, and it was not doing a very good job.
As I stood there, I noticed a figure just to my side. I turned slightly to better see who this person was, and was completely taken aback. It was an older lady wearing a sensible cloth coat and sensible shoes. Her hair was gray with a very, very light blue tint to it and she wore glasses. If I did not know better, I could have sworn it was my mother, but Mom had been gone for some time now.
This beautiful woman stepped forward and reaching into the pocket of her sensible cloth coat, she withdrew a handful of tissues, handing them to me. As I took them from her she reached forward and gently pulled my head to her shoulder. "You can cry now son. I’ll stay here and not let anyone bother you. You need it, and do not need to be ashamed." I ended up on my knees sobbing as if there were no end to this pit of sorrow. I eventually calmed somewhat and stood again. I thanked her, and she simply looked at me and told me to continue my sharing with The Wall. She then smiled, turned, and simply walked away. I do not know who she was and probably never will. As she disappeared into the gathering crowd I felt like maybe this site was a place of healing after all. I spent the rest of the day communing with those names on the panels and the three troopers depicted in the statue.
I left and returned to the motel. After a shower and dinner I felt better, but there was a sense of unrest, of something unfinished. I returned to my room and found some of the ever-present motel stationery in one of the drawers. I sat and wrote a short letter. It was really a note of apology to those whose names and faces I did not remember. I finally was able to sleep.
I returned to The Wall the next morning and after a few minutes of meditation, approached one of the volunteers. We spoke for a few minutes and then he told me that he recognized me from the day before. He said that the guides and a few of the vets had noticed my difficulty in approaching the monument. He told me that they recognized the behavior of a first timer and they always keep an eye on them. It seems a great number of the veterans end up in the tree line on their first visit to The Wall. I was amazed. Maybe I was not alone in this thing after all.
I asked this gentleman if he could direct me to a point along the path that would represent the halfway point of my tour in Vietnam. He directed me to a spot that he said would probably serve my purpose. I thanked him, and as he turned to go said, "Welcome home, brother." Except for my family on my return, not one person had said those words to me since coming home. Maybe I was "coming home." Finally.
I placed my letter in the fissure between two of the panels and stepped back. In my mind I spoke to those whose paths may have crossed mine and apologized for not remembering them in a more fitting manner. Of course there were more tears but they were more of a balm than the acid I had been enduring since reading the National Geographic. They did not burn anymore. I was sure there would be more tears in the years to come but nothing like I had experienced in the last twenty-four hours.
I strolled over to the tree line and sat for awhile. Then after visiting the various booths and buying some souvenirs for those back home, I decided to leave. As I was walking back to the bike I saw a great bear of a man in a wheelchair. He had no legs. He had on a baseball cap and a vest and both were covered with pins, medals, and patches. As I got closer to him, our eyes met and I offered my hand to him and said, "Welcome home, brother." He shook my hand and returned the greeting. We spoke for a few moments and I asked him what unit he was with and where he had been in country. He told me and then asked the same of me. After I told him my unit and in country location he asked me what the problem was. I told him I did not understand what he was talking about.
He said, "You need to understand that not one person did or contributed any more than another. You did something that you could and I am sure you did it to the best of your ability. If you had not been there, who knows how many of us would not have come home at all. All of you that were there to help the wounded did a difficult job and have no reason to take a back seat to anyone. You feel like you did not do as important a job as the grunts but that is just not true. None of us that were there liked anything about what we were doing but we did it. And I feel we were the better for it." I again told him thank you and asked how he became so perceptive. He said he spent a lot of time around The Wall and had talked to a great many people and heard a lot of stories. He said the way I felt seemed to be one of the more prominent feelings among the medical unit people and it usually came through in the way they spoke and looked. We talked for awhile longer and then I left. I had a long trip home starting the next day.
I started out the next morning and the temperature was in the high thirties. On a bike at sixty mph, this felt like at least zero. The sky was overcast and it looked like rain. I contemplated stopping at the first sign of any precipitation and laying over. As I rode down the road the sun suddenly broke through, and the day became as glorious as one could wish for. I was on such a high after the visit to The Wall. I found myself screaming to the sky, "I’m alive, I’m alive. Thank God, I’m alive." Sounds corny, I know, but you had to be there.
There is now a statue dedicated to the women who served in Vietnam. I have not yet seen it but I will. And I will cry again. I know I will. Recently I have made contact, through the Internet, with a number of women who were there. I am in awe of these women. They deserve the highest respect and honor that can be conferred. In my mind, I am sure they had no idea of what to expect when they arrived in that faraway place. I cannot imagine too many women thinking of things like wars and battles and the horrible wounds they would encounter. They were at a disadvantage and yet they prevailed and completed a difficult task. And not just in Vietnam. They deserve to be recognized for Korea and all of the other conflicts in which our country asked that they serve. It has been far too long that these gentle souls have been ignored. I am sorry to be among those that did not speak in their behalf. I have worked alongside these ladies for many years and know of their abilities and their compassion. Yet I will pay my respects to those women at the Memorial and I again will cry. Some were lost and we should all grieve for them. Our country is the poorer for their loss. We are the poorer for the loss of all the souls lost in all the wars. As the old gentleman at The Wall said, "All of them, all of them."
I have a close friend who was in Vietnam and has not yet been to The Wall. He says he is not ready. He says he is afraid it will make him cry. I told him that all of us who go there cry, but I guess we all have our individual times when we become ready to approach a difficult task. I have told him that when he is ready to go I will go with him. And I will. Just in case there is no elderly gentleman with his wife, or no lady in a sensible cloth coat and sensible shoes, or no great bear of a legless man in a wheelchair there for him. And I will carry extra handkerchiefs and tissues in the event he forgets.
This was the story of my pilgrimage to The Wall and the events that took place there. I like to feel that we are all in this healing together. We went to Vietnam together and some of us came home together. None of us came back whole. But we can heal, thanks to those that conceived The Wall. We owe them our gratitude. I am so very grateful to those gentle people. I know they were inspired by a higher power but they had to proceed with their vision in the face of daunting odds. We owe all those who went before us honor, gratitude and respect. I am one of those many who benefited immeasurably from The Wall. Yet I contributed nothing. Not even five bucks. Because I was OK. I didn’t need anything from anybody. How little I knew. How very little I knew. Thank you Jan Scruggs, Robert Doubek, and John Wheeler. Thank you Maya Lin. Thank you Glenna Goodacre, Frederick Hart and all of the others who had the vision, the guts and the foresight to give us this healing place.
EpilogueFirst stationed with the 3rd Surgical Hospital in Bien Hoa, Kenneth Bopp and his unit moved to the delta after a couple of months where he and another anesthetist were in command of the convoy to the new location. Bopp returned to the 24th Evacuation Hospital for a six-week temporary duty assignment, then went back to the delta. In August 1967, transferring back to the 24th Evacuation Hospital, Bopp finished his tour of duty in Long Binh, Vietnam.
After he returned home, he worked in Belleville, Illinois for a couple of years, then moved his family to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he continues his practice as a CRNA at what is now Memorial Medical Center. "I was the first male nurse anesthetist they had ever seen at [South Baptist Hospital]," says Bopp. He works with mostly cardiovascular and neuro cases, and his group has also added obstetric (OB) anesthesia to their repertoire.
Bopp has returned to The Wall once since the time he documents above. "It is still, to me, a very moving experience. I cried again, but it was much more peaceful and calming to me than the tears I cried at the first visit," he reports.
"My family is thriving," he continues. "I did lose my wife two years ago to metastatic breast cancer. She was also a nurse anesthetist, although [she] had not practiced anesthesia for many years. She was an emergency room nurse.
"Both of my daughters are a source of joy and pride to me," he says. "They are wonderful mothers and wives. My son is doing much better now. He still has problems but is slowly overcoming them, and I have great hope for him. I am also very proud of him and his heroic struggle against drugs."