A means to heal: Vietnam Vet takes thousands of photos at war memorials in all 50 states

Mike Walsh of Germantown, Maryland recently dusted off his old projector for the first time in decades to look at pictures he took while serving in the Vietnam War.

“Well truthfully I hadn’t looked at them in many, many years. It’s probably been 40 years since I’ve pulled them out of the closet,” says Walsh.

In the late 1960’s this 19 year old Army Specialist operated a boat that ferried supplies up and down the Mekong River. His assignments were often harrowing.

Walsh says, “We received our fair share or fire from the shore. The Mekong River in places is very narrow and there are a lot of hair pin turns.”

But it’s what happened to Walsh on the very day he went home that still haunts him.

“There’s a slide of a place where we used to go when we were off duty. And the day I left it was hit pretty hard. I don’t know what the total number of guys killed was but four guys that I had lunch with that day were dead,” says Walsh.

Walsh says he received his orders a week early. Under normal circumstances he probably would have been in that bar with his buddies when they were killed.

“That question has run through my mind a thousand times. Why did I get to go home early and these guys didn’t? Might I have been sitting with them? You never forget those things. They are with you all the time. And there’s no answer,” says Walsh.

Walsh returned stateside to a nation in turmoil. To distance himself from what would turn out to be significant PTSD that he still struggles with Walsh made a decision he regrets. He threw away everything associated with the war: military uniforms, medals, dog tags, boots and the letters he sent home to his mother.

Walsh says, “I just wanted to have nothing to do with it. I just wanted to put Vietnam behind me, forget about it, never think about it again and move on. Of course, at that time, I didn’t know I had PTSD. I didn’t know I had diabetes. I didn’t know I had kidney disease. I just wanted to move on with my life and forget that that ever happened.”

His significant health struggles now at the age of 69 are the result of his unknowing exposure to Agent Orange during the war.

“Every day of your life you deal with it,” says Walsh.

Mike Walsh discovered that he could not undo the residue of war. But he did find a way to cope.

Nearly 20 years after his four friends were killed Walsh went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington for the first time to touch their names etched in black granite. This iconic memorial displays more than 58,000 names of the fallen.

To learn more about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and efforts to find photos of every name inscribed The Wall click here.

The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund (VVMF) is the nonprofit organization that built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

This experience and his trip to other local memorials convinced him to begin an unexpected journey of healing for himself and for countless others.

Walsh worked as a teacher in Montgomery County for nearly 40 years. When he retired in 2009 he decided to embark on a photographic pilgrimage to Vietnam War memorials across the country. His goal was to snap a picture of a memorial in all 50 states.

“Yeah, it’s why I get up on the morning. It’s what I do,” says Walsh.

His first picture was taken in Oceans Springs, Mississippi. From there he’s been to Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and beyond.

The memorial in Missoula, Montana is among his favorites. He believes the angel lifting up this dead soldier is also a fallen comrade.

Walsh says, “I’ve always insisted that he’s one of us. He’s a Vet. He’s one Vet bringing home another one.”

It took Walsh 37 months to get to all 50 states. He had no intention of stopping there. In fact, he’s been to most states twice, some 3 or 4 times. He’s taken more than 60,000 photographs.

Click here to see the photographs Walsh has taken.

Walsh says, “All of this to me, all of it, is about honoring these guys. They paid the ultimate price. None of the rest of us can say that.”

His blog, A Means to Heal, features nearly 600 memorials photographed in the last eight years.

As you probably know, visitors to the Wall often leave things behind. A memento, or a personal item, or sometimes something as simple as a flag.

Walsh says, “I know that it’s helped me. And I hear from Vets all the time who say it’s helped them.”

One veteran wrote to Walsh, “I have been in therapy…for PTSD for longer than I care to remember, but after seeing your site, I know I am going to get well!”

Another wrote, “Your efforts are certain to help a generation remember while giving future generations something to never forget.”

Despite all those years on the road Walsh hadn’t been to a couple memorials close to his home in Maryland: two memorials that are deeply personal to his Vietnam experience. So we joined him on the day he traveled to what he believes are the final memorials in Maryland he hadn’t photographed.

“We are heading over to the University of Maryland, my alma mater,” says Walsh.

The Vietnam War memorial on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus is nestled behind the chapel. This particular memorial reminds Walsh of a painful and complicated time in his life. He attended this university after returning from Vietnam and wasn’t always made to feel welcome.

Walsh says, “I think I understand some of what the students were feeling. Nobody knew why we were in Vietnam. It was an extremely difficult time and there was a lot of anger and hatred and bad feelings.”

He appreciates this particular memorial because of its inclusive language. Walsh read aloud what is inscribed on the memorial.

“This site is dedicated to the people whose lives were touched by the fire of the Vietnam War,” says Walsh.

Oddly enough, the memorial with the deepest impact on Mike Walsh’s life hangs inside St John the Evangelist elementary school, which isn’t far from his childhood home in Silver Spring. He attended this school from 1951 to 1961.

He was greeted at the door by Sister Daniel Mary Heisey, Director of Alumni Relations for the school. She worked here when Walsh went to school.

Walsh tells her, “We went to kindergarten right down the hall here.”

This is where Walsh met his first friends: guys like John Liverman, Kevin Coyne and Frank Streeks.

All three of those friends served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. They were all killed during the war. In 1968 the school put up a scholarship memorial in honor of Frank Streeks.

“So this memorial is to Frank Streeks. We called him Trippy. And he was a classmate of mine. He was a Marine. He was killed in Vietnam, the first one of my classmates to die there. This one is special. I knew this guy. We were in the same class. We played on the elementary football team together. This is your childhood being destroyed as far as I’m concerned. It’s been 50 years and we’re still dealing with this stuff.”

So Mike Walsh copes by taking pictures and posting them to his blog to hopefully help heal a generation of men still struggling with a haunting past.

“I’ve chosen to immerse myself in trying to visit and photograph and honor as many of these memories to these lost men as I can,” says Walsh.

And he has no intention of stopping any time soon.

Walsh says, “And I’m not done. If I can continue to find them I will keep going to get them as long as I’m able. I don’t believe for a moment that I’m going to get every one that was every put up everywhere in every small town, every plaque in every VFW across the nation. But I’d like to put a real dent in those numbers.”

Some suspect there may be 2000 Vietnam Veteran memorials in America. No one knows for sure. Mike Walsh intends to find out so we never forget the sacrifice of young men like John Liverman, Kevin Coyne and Frank Streeks.