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Finding the Face of My Muse: A Vietnam Veteran I Never Met

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"Where do you get your ideas?" is a question writers often hear, and I've learned that pinpointing the source of my inspiration is not an exact science. But when it comes to my debut novel, The Voice I Just Heard, I was stunned by the death of one young soldier in Vietnam, and writing my book became my way of facing feelings that had gone underground. Since this November will mark thirty years since the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it's worth noting that all of the 58,272 men and women whose names grace the Wall in D.C. must have friends or family who hope their sacrifice will be remembered.

Forgetting Mark, however, is not something I could ever do. He was my faithful pen pal, a nineteen-year-old Marine from Tonawanda, New York, located 60 miles northeast of Fredonia where my family lived from 1964 until 1968. We never met, but my relationship with him began when a neighbor asked me to correspond with a dear friend's son who had enlisted in 1967, fresh from high school. Even as a teenager I loved to write, so I quickly agreed, though I knew little about the war which was ravaging so many lives.

After Mark was deployed to Quang Tri Province in January of 1968, his letters began arriving on blue airmail stationery. His tone was upbeat and jocular in the manner of an older brother, and I enjoyed his stories which he probably sanitized for my benefit. I anticipated the day when he would return, and I could finally match a face with his prose--he never sent a photo.

A few months later when I learned that Mark was killed on June 28--two weeks after my own graduation--I felt numb. That spring had seen the murders of Rev. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and I was mourning both leaders, especially our New York Senator whom I'd briefly met when he visited nearby Dunkirk the year before. I was aware of Kennedy's campaign promise to end the war if he became president, and now Vietnam felt personal. Now it had a name: Lance Corporal Mark E. Vanderheid. When some of Mark's letters showed up in my mailbox a week after he died, my sorrow deepened into despair.

I'd had no contact with Mark's family and was not invited to his funeral. Did I send a condolence note to his grieving mother? I hope so, but I honestly can't recall. I was just 18, and though the death of a boy my age was not something I was prepared to handle, nobody thought to counsel me. In fairness to my parents, they were coordinating their second major move in four years when my dad was transferred.

Vietnam soon cast a cloud over my college tenure as my male friends at Michigan State made painful decisions about whether to fight the war or battle their draft boards. But aside from Mark I didn't know anyone else who died in-country.

In 1972 I received my bachelor's degree, and began to hone my writing skills. Nine years later I launched a freelance writing business in D.C. some 18 months before the Wall became one of the most popular destinations in the capital. Each year since, I have welcomed the sound of Rolling Thunder as Vietnam vets roared into town for a Memorial Day salute to fallen comrades.

Memories of Mark somehow remained buried in my psyche until the mid-1990s when I prepared to tackle my lifelong dream of writing a novel. I began to outline a story about an aspiring Broadway soprano whose life is irrevocably changed when her beloved older brother dies in Vietnam. For a long time, I didn't consciously realize why this idea held such resonance, but I felt driven to write about the impact of one person's death in a war that transformed an entire generation.

My research brought valuable insights even though I planned to focus entirely on the home front. I interviewed both soldiers and officers who had served during different periods, and corresponded with a vet in Texas who offered many details. Then one chilly spring day I made a trip I'd long postponed and found Mark's panel (54W) and row (8) on the Wall. Seeing his name up high, I cried abundant tears and felt as though I were finally visiting his grave. The Vietnam Memorial is a place of deep reverence, and I doubt that anyone leaves it without a sense of communal sadness.

I spent several more years writing my book, and the character inspired by Mark morphed into a fictional Georgetown grad who died while supervising a team of medics. I finally made peace with Mark's fate, but though I had searched the internet many times for his picture, I'd come up empty until seven weeks ago. That's when I clicked on a link at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund/Build the Center and came face to face with my Muse after 44 years--see him below. I wept tears of joy because Mark seemed so familiar, and I was comforted by the idea that knowing him, even for those few months through his letters, had profoundly enriched my life.

So in a few weeks when Memorial Day again rolls around, I'll raise a glass to my pen pal and say the words, "Semper Fi." And I'll be silently thanking the VVMF for its ongoing campaign to find and post photos of all who died in that conflict.

To view Mark's page and learn about the education center that will honor veterans of all U.S. wars, go to:
http://www.vvmf.org/thewall/Wall_Id_No=53396

Susan Dormady Eisenberg's Vietnam-era novel, newly out in paperback, is THE VOICE I JUST HEARD.