vet's life work...

Moving Wall Becomes Vet's Life Work

By Karen Sandstrom, staff writer

The Plain Dealer, (Cleveland OH) May 20, 1990


When you first hear about John Devitt and his ten-year odyssey with the Moving Wall, the tendency is to leap to one of two conclusions. The first is that Devitt is completely selfish. The second is that he is completely selfless. People who know him say both assumptions are wrong. They believe that the man who created the mobile replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. has weaved self-interest and selflessness so seamlessly that virtually everyone walks away feeling healed.

Devitt, 45, has spent the last ten years on the road, living for his portable, 252-foot-long wall. The journey has taken him to places such as Tyler, Texas, and Maui, Hawaii. Last week he brought the Wall to Lakeland Community College, where it will be on display through Wednesday outside the school's athletic center. He has escorted it to Guam and Saipan. He travels 10 months a year, hitting 23 to 28 cities. Sponsors pay his room and board. He lives lean, keeping his life and his mission close to the bone.

Devitt carries no extra weight on his lanky frame, wears faded jeans and pulls his dark hair into a ponytail that stretches halfway down his back. He drives a truck attached to a flatbed trailer that carries the panels of the Moving Wall. When he's not directing the setup of the Wall, he's in a hotel room, working off a laptop computer, writing letters or catching up on lost sleep. One friend says he's a good correspondent, but has no interest outside the Wall. Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the man credited with conceiving the memorial in Washington, puts it more bluntly: "I would say this has taken over his life in a pretty serious way."

Devitt tells a story of a man he met in the course of his travels with the wall. The guy was a vet, like Devitt, but "had the personality of a used-car salesman," he remembers. "He talked like a real huckster. He told me he might be a better representative for the wall because he wore a suit and tie. That's when I decided we weren't changing a thing." The Moving Wall is set up with an eye toward keeping the atmosphere respectful and hype-free. Devitt's rules are few but unbending; you won't buy an "I saw the Moving Wall at Lakeland" T-shirts on campus.

Devitt speaks softly and ducks away from camera lenses. He suffers the media uncomfortably, and only because it's useful. And when a second Moving Wall was built to accommodate more visits, Devitt sought to find a suitable escort. He does not expect all visitors to have identical reactions to the names on the wall. He hopes the structure helps veterans and their families find peace, and he has seen the wall teach children the price of war. "It's gone way beyond what we anticipated in the beginning," Devitt said of the project. "We thought we'd be done touring in a year." Balancing the Moving Wall's increasingly busy schedule, he believes it might travel forever.

Devitt lives in San Jose, California, where he went to high school. He thought about college, but enlisted in the Army instead, and became a helicopter gunner in the 1st Air Cavalry. He saw heavy action in the Tet offensive of 1968. Three times his helicopter was shot down, and it crashed a fourth time when the engine failed. He came home in 1969 with a strategy for dealing with what he had seen: "I wanted to forget about it."

Devitt had a series of short-term jobs, including his own business. He never had a lot of money, and what he did make he eventually poured into the Moving Wall project along with donations from others. When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was erected in Constitution Gardens in 1982, friends and family pitched in to buy Devitt a plane ticket so he could attend the dedication. He was surprised by what he saw. "During that week in Washington, you'd turn on the TV and all you heard was how Vietnam vets can 'finally put to rest' the memories. There was all this 'finally'."

But he didn't see anything as final. What he had found was the beginning of a chance for veterans to feel better about themselves. Sue Shears and her husband, Norris, were running a silkscreen shop in San Jose at the time Devitt started struggling with how to build a moveable version of the wall. Norris Shears had been in Vietnam, too. The Shearses collaborated with Devitt in the screening of the panels that are used on the wall. Sue Shears has watched Devitt, and speaks reverentially of his dedication. She said she believes he is driven to put in 16- and 18-hour days because the project helps him with his own pain.

"If you get to know him, you understand the suffering inside," Sue Shears says. But she admits Devitt doesn't speak much about Vietnam, not even to his closest friends. "He's not a loud sufferer. He doesn't preach it, he doesn't exploit it. But this is for him." Inherent in the project, too, is Devitt's devotion to the needs of the men he fought with, Sue Shears said. "Most of the guys who went were guys who couldn't afford college," she said. "So most of the people, the parents or their sons, still can't afford to get to Washington."

Taking the memorial to the people has paid off, Devitt said. "My attitude has changed 180 degrees from where it was when we started," he said. "I used to think about 10% of the people in this country really understood what was going on, and the others were mindless idiots and fools. Now I think it's exactly the opposite (by michael gill). I'm in a unique position to view the country."

People are willing to learn about Vietnam, he says; he has seen it happen."So many people have thought they have no connection to it. Then they come out to the wall. For so long (Vietnam) was politics," he said. Seeing the wall's 58,191 names, representing Vietnam casualties from 1959 to 1975, changes that, he said. Whether Devitt will run out of steam doesn't seem to worry him. The constant traveling takes a toll in fatigue, he admits. Last week he was trying to beat a cold he had caught in Erie, PA. But he said his needs remain simple. "As long as I'm eating and have a place to sleep, that's good enough," he says.

Sue Shears said she believes the Moving Wall is as important to Devitt as eating and sleeping.

"God has little plans for us, I believe," she said. "I think this was John's calling." --