There are more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. One of them belongs to Michael Najarian — but the Michael Najarian who served in Vietnam and now leans in to touch the engraving is still very much alive.
What would you do if you found your own name on a list of the dead? “I just sort of sank on the ground,” Najarian says, shaking his head. “I couldn’t believe it.”
This Najarian was an Air Force sergeant during the Vietnam War. The Najarian on the wall was in the Navy. They were born one year and one day apart. “Only a middle initial separates us. He’s Michael A. I’m Michael G. Najarian.”
The two soldiers grew up on opposite sides of the country; they are not related. One died at 21. The other, now 65, was given the gift of growing old.
“I read something the other day,” the older Najarian says, pausing to dip a brush into his bucket. “‘A veteran is a person who wrote a blank check to this country.”
Our nation withdrew everything Michael A. Najarian had.
Perhaps that’s why Michael G. Najarian, the one who lives in suburban D.C. today, rises before dawn to clean the names on that Wall. He’s done it for 15 years.
“War is never over for anyone,” Mike says, growing emotional. “Not for me or anyone else. Period.”
Perhaps that’s why other veterans have joined him. So many now come that the Wall is washed every week for free.
Washing away survivor’s guilt
“I use it as my Wailing Wall,” Bill Gray says quietly. The former Army lieutenant lost five men in his platoon.
“One of them, Gene White, was a young sergeant about my age,” Gray says, he eyes filling. “He had just come back from R and R in Hawaii with his wife. He was killed by an incoming mortar round with only a month left to go.”
Gray’s company commander also died. “The new C.O. would have written the parents of the dead in my platoon, but it would have been a form letter,” Gray says. He handled the job instead. “My letters had dust on them, the dust we had in the Central Highlands.”
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North Vietnamese soldiers overran Bill Gray’s outpost. “I was hit in the right leg and was afraid I was going to bleed to death.” But he got all of his injured men out first and was awarded the Silver Star for Gallantry.
“How difficult was it to accept that some of your men would not be coming home with you?” I ask.
Video: Grief unites fallen soldiers' mothers At first Bill Gray came to the Wall at night, taking pictures. He was still crouching in the darkness of his mind. “I suffer from survivor’s guilt. Cleaning this wall is an opportunity to wash that away.”
Gray stretches to reach the names of the dead in his platoon.
“You realize there are so many families who have been affected by this.” He gazes at the army of names. “I try to see the thousands of people that they left behind, the wives, the parents, the kids, the unborn.”
It is for them, too, that the old soldiers tend this peaceful place. It is not a job; it is an honor. Every day that they go down to that wall and pick up a brush is Memorial Day.
After all, what does a soldier who survived war fear most?
That people will forget.
Keep those ideas coming. Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox .
If you would like to contact the subjects of this American Story with Bob Dotson, they are members of Maryland Chapter 641 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, whose site you can visit by clicking here.
Want to look up a name on the Wall?Click here.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints