In a patch of woods just a few clicks from the Lincoln Memorial, a squad of soldiers maneuvers silently under the moonlit sky through the imaginary jungles of the 38th parallel, frozen in statuesque immortality.
Down the trodden footpath is the V-shaped wall that points to Saigon, triggering memories and flashbacks of a later generation of “those who served,” and sending ripples of goosebumps across the skin of those who can only imagine.
And then, in a nearby clearing is perhaps the last bastion of selfless courage and patriotism in this town, “The Last Firebase.”
Here, the wars may be over, but the vigil continues.
Bill Marlin has been here since 1986, manning one of two small huts on the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
“I’m here to get the word out about the Prisoners of War/Missing in Action . that there is the possibility of live POWs,” Marlin said. “And those who are still unaccountable, from one war or another, deserve to be found and brought back home.”
In all, 2,227 soldiers, sailors and airmen have yet to return from Vietnam.
“The lies and insults they keep presenting to cover up their abandonment of veterans are despicable,” Marlin said. “And I’m talking about that draft dodger that’s sitting in the White House right now.”
Marlin served in Vietnam from 1962 to 1963 on the USS Hancock CVA-19. He was in his early 20s.
He says he went because he was told to go.
“Was the war right? It doesn’t matter,” Marlin said. “We were fighting and dying over there so people back home could argue about whether it’s right or wrong.”
“I realize that the probability of finding anyone alive decreases each year,” Marlin said. “But the demand for truth never fades.
“If anything, these people have the right to buried on American soil.”
Marlin, now in his 50s, leans on his cane, hovering over the red glow of a heat lamp and describing his first experience at the Wall on a hot summer day in July of 1986.
The lyrics from the song “Green Berets” waft across the cold night air.
“Fighting soldiers from the sky, fearless men who jump and die/Men who mean just what they say/The brave men of the green beret . “
In 1986, Marlin was what he called a “closet vet,” but today he’s back volunteering for what he sees as the most important cause of his life.
“This is a part of me I can never let go of,” Marlin said.
Would he let his son serve?
“I say when my son signs on the dotted line to give his all, I want the government to sign on the dotted line that they will give their all. It’s as simple as that,” Marlin replied.
But in the meantime, Marlin’s battle is right here, right now.
“Why should we have to fight our own government? They’re trying to get rid of us down here, telling us what we can sell and where we can stand,” Marlin said.
“Can you believe that we can’t sell an American flag?” he said.
The same flag that waved over the battlefields where so many fought and died.
And no T-shirts with messages either.
“We’re doing something they just don’t want to face up to.
“I’m proud to be an American, but I’m mad as hell at my government,” Marlin said.
Which is why, Marlin said, he will be at “The Last Firebase” Wednesday – Veterans Day – and not at Arlington National Cemetery.
“Because I am alive. Because this is where I belong. Because I’m a Vietnam vet giving a voice to the voiceless. I will never turn my back on my brothers,” Marlin said.
“I’ll be here until hell freezes over.”
The vigil continues.