It was a day that started with tears and ended with hugs and smiles.
Paul Middleton arrived at The Wall on a rainy day in November. Officially, it is The Vietnam Veterans Memorial...but everybody calls it The Wall. He and his wife Annette had driven up from Charleston, South Carolina, specifically to experience The Wall.
It's part of his treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder - PTSD. His doctor had encouraged Paul to go to Washington, DC and look at the names of his four buddies on The Wall.
Face it. Deal with it.
It's part of the relatively new VA treatment known as in-context exposure therapy. As his doctor puts it, "The only way to get past the anxiety is through it, not to avoid it."
Paul quietly told his family, "I need to do this by myself."
Walking The Wall was not easy for Paul. There were tears.
After a few quiet moments of reflection, he took his wife and brother down the ramp to see the names. Now there was pride and fondness in recalling their memories. Paul talked about them and the dates they were in Vietnam. A little less emotionally now. Having accepted the reality of their lives...and deaths...seemed to allow Paul to talk about them like old friends. A good sign.
And then...as a beautiful coda to the day, a man appeared in a wheel-chair.
Paul reacted with innocent excitement: "That is Max Cleland. A Vietnam vet. He used to run the VA."
Paul caught up with former Senator Max Cleland.
"Senator Cleland? I am a Vietnam Vet and would love to shake your hand."
Senator Cleland instantly said, "Of course!"
Senator Cleland, a triple amputee Vietnam Veteran, said, "Paul, the widow of a Vietnam Veteran just passed me this flag. I am now passing it on to you. Thank you for your service."
Paul: "Thank YOU, sir!" And then a big hug.
Somehow, the coincidental meeting of these two authentic heroes from America's military past seemed an omen...a sign that verified Paul's comment on seeing his buddies' names: "This is the final chapter."
This is one in a series of stories about Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. VA's National Center for PTSD has information on how to get help for Veterans with PTSD.