It took nearly 30 years for William "Easy" Smith to start looking for the self that he lost in Vietnam.
His journey inward began when he found the courage to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Capitol Park.
There he saw the names of those who had lost their lives, and he remembered the distant war that sent him home with permanent scars inside and out.
Since then, each Memorial Day weekend, Smith has placed a wreath at the memorial to honor the men who died in his celebrated unit, the Army's 27th Infantry, known as the Wolfhounds.
On Sunday, a reading of the names of Californians who died in Vietnam will take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the memorial.
This year, Smith not only will honor those who died in the Vietnam War, but he also will read the names of Americans who have died in Iraq.
"Remembering them is such a healing process," says the 58-year-old Natomas resident. "They deserve to be remembered. And their names are read so that they are not forgotten."
It was a long time before Smith was willing to remember.
Smith, who says he was wounded twice in Vietnam and came home an emotional wreck, tried to drown his war demons.
"I came home from Vietnam by myself," Smith recalls. "I never got to see those boys I served with. For years I didn't know who made it out alive or what had become of them. I had begun to block out that whole experience and stuff it deep down inside.
"The only welcome home I got was from my mother and sister, who met me. My wife and kid couldn't even meet me because they didn't have a car."
Smith said his own mother never asked him what happened in Vietnam, and his sister and others urged him to "get on with your life."
But his life had been forever altered.
"As long as I live I will not forget going into my favorite restaurant near my house. And the man who owned the place called me over and said, 'I hear that a lot of people coming back from Vietnam are crazy. Are you crazy?' "
Smith walked out of the restaurant.
"That was the last time I would say anything about the Vietnam War," he says. "I completely shut down. Like many other vets, I began to do a lot of drugs and alcohol. That was the only way we knew how to escape the pain we were in."
Smith, who was married with a 2-year-old daughter when he went to Vietnam, came back unable to maintain relationships. He and his wife split up.
A fractured life of torn relations and substance abuse finally came to a head in 1995 when police arrested him for speeding on Interstate 5.
That incident, which he refers to as a flashback, led Smith to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Menlo Park.
After 11 months of treatment at the VA hospital, Smith emerged ready to confront the ghosts of his Vietnam past and help other veterans confront theirs.
Mary Lou McNeill, executive director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 500, has watched Smith help others.
"He is a shepherd," she says. "His caring and concern for fellow veterans is outstanding. He keeps track of them and stays in touch with them to make sure they are OK. He's familiar with all of their issues and problems."
Retired, Smith devotes his life to helping other veterans. He also stays in touch with the parents and other relatives of soldiers who died in Vietnam.
"Everything I learned in the hospital I try to pass on to the other vets," Smith says. "We have got to help each other, because no one else understands us."
Vietnam vet - and fellow Wolfhound, though not in Smith's company - Merrill Sellers found Smith on a Wolfhound Web site.
They've since become fast friends.
"I e-mailed 'Easy' and found out that we were both in Sacramento," Sellers says. "Once you find people, you don't want to lose them."
Sellers, Smith and about nine other Wolfhounds have lunch at the memorial once a month.
"We feel that there is a benefit for veterans who have a lot of stuffed feelings to get together," Sellers says. "There is a camaraderie that allows us to talk about things. It's like expanding the family again. It's a way to try to mend those severed feelings and bring them back."
Smith says his real healing started when he visited the Veterans Memorial in Capitol Park in 1996 and then the Wall - the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. - later that year.
"The walk up to that Wall was the longest walk I had ever taken," he says.
Once there, Smith pored over the names of the soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, looking for the names of men he knew. He was flustered, however, because he couldn't remember many of the first names of the men he had served with. Not even his best friend, who had died in combat.
It was three years of visiting the Wall before Smith ever spoke to anyone he saw there. But then he started connecting with other veterans. Their common experiences were their bond.
"No one except one who has experienced it can understand how it feels to wake up every day knowing that you are going to kill someone or get killed," he says.
Smith had communicated by phone and e-mail with others who had served in his unit, but he had yet to meet up with someone who had been there with him.
Last year it finally happened.
"I hadn't seen my friend since the day I got shot, September 4, 1967," Smith says. "I was at the Wall in D.C. and I was getting ready to view the 10th anniversary ceremony for the Women's Memorial.
"I see this figure out of the corner of my eye and I was scared to look at him because I knew it was him.
"As I turned to look at him, he said, 'Weren't you with the 27th?'
"I yelled his name, 'Ingram!' "
Luther Ingram, who lives in Philadelphia, served in the same unit with Smith and was on the battlefield when Smith was injured.
He never knew what happened to Smith after the medics took him away.
"I never would have imagined I would have run into him," Ingram says. "Seeing 'Easy' has definitely helped me deal with the scars of Vietnam. I'm not wondering what happened to my friend and where he is anymore. I now know that he is doing all right. Unlike so many others, this is one chapter in my life that has been closed and completed."
For both men the meeting was emotional.
"I told myself that I wouldn't cry if I found one of the men I had served with," Smith says. "I fooled myself."
But the tears and the memories have helped Smith.
"Through the process of remembering, I've gotten to be proud of what I did," Smith says. "And I am reminded that each man is just another man and it is not about the color of his skin. That's how it was in Vietnam."
About the Writer
The Bee's Fahizah Alim can be reached at (916) 321-1068 or firstname.lastname@example.org.