The Big Read: Sculpture left by widow at Vietnam Wall shows the tragic effects of war

By Michael E. Ruane

Private Samuel Elliott. Photo / Supplied
Private Samuel Elliott. Photo / Supplied

The sculpture was packed in bubble wrap inside a taped-up box and was wheeled on a dolly to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial one day last month by three people who looked to be in their 60s.

They asked Al Gallant, a volunteer guide, if it was okay to leave a memento. Sure, he said. They pushed the cart down the path to the Wall, took the sculpture from the box, and walked away. One of them paused to snap a picture as they departed.

What they had left was an unusual piece - "macabre," Gallant called it. And, like many of the 400,000 items left at the Wall since 1982, it had a story.

The object was the painted bust of an American soldier, one side of the face depicting a smooth-skinned young serviceman, the other an aged, long-haired veteran with pocked features and a tearful, staring eye.

On one side, the top of the head was protected by an Army helmet. On the other, the helmet and skull were cut away to reveal the gray folds of the brain, etched with the names of battles and slogans from the war.

The dog tag on the sculpture bore the name, blood type and religion of Army Pvt. Leo C. Buckley Jr., a Vietnam veteran who died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 60 in Walterboro, S.C.

But the face was that of Samuel J. Elliott, 73, a church deacon who lives in Hendersonville, N.C. He is the artist who created the sculpture.

Both men served in the war. Both saw combat. Both suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Neither knew the other during the war.

It was Buckley's widow who, with two friends, left the sculpture at the Wall, which bears the names of more than 58,000 men and women claimed by the war. She snapped the photo as she walked away.

"Clay" Buckley had been a paratrooper with the elite 173rd Airborne Brigade during the war, and was severely injured when he stepped on a land mine, which tore off a chunk of one of his legs.

He spent 13 months recuperating in hospitals.

The bust was left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo / Bonnie Jo Mount / Washington Post
The bust was left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo / Bonnie Jo Mount / Washington Post

Elliott served with an Army "survey" team, which helicoptered into the bush and selected sites where artillery could be placed. He was hit by shrapnel, and lost a revered commander who had served as a father figure.

Following the war, Elliott's life fell apart and he was in and out of a veterans hospital in Georgia for counseling, he said. It was after a final stay in the mid-1990s that he started work on the sculpture as part of his healing.

He had realized the Vietnam veteran's dilemma: "We're back, but the memories of the war are embedded in our brain so deeply that we can't seem to escape that part of us," he said in a recent telephone interview.

An artist and a writer, he said he did the first version of the sculpture in bronze as personal therapy in 1995. But he produced eleven more versions in high-density plaster of Paris for fellow veterans.

"I would hand engrave their name and serial number and all that on the dog tag, to personalize it for them," he said.

He explained the two sides to the sculpture:

"First, you're proud to be an American soldier," he said. "By God, I'm in uniform and I'm here and I'm ready to do what I've go to do."

Afterward, "you feel scarred," he said. "You feel wounded. You're aged. You've matured way too fast, came back an old man in spirit."

Elliott, a native of Hendersonville, said he was drafted in 1966, and was in a field artillery unit in the 1st Air Cavalry Division. He was in Vietnam from March 15, 1967, to March 15, 1968, and had a job that was often dangerous.

"We had to go out in small groups out in the middle of nowhere all by ourselves," he said. "Got shot at I don't know how many times. . . . They used us as scouts. . . . It was to position our artillery."

Helicopters would then airlift artillery pieces to sites selected by the surveyors, he said.

His most wrenching experience of the war was the death of a commander, Lt. Col. Robert E. Whitbeck, to whom he had grown close. He said he often served as Whitbeck's jeep driver, and he has an old photo of them shaking hands.

"It really affected me," Elliott said. "I really loved the guy. He became almost like a father figure. . . . [He had] all the attributes of a great leader. . . . I'd have stuck my neck out any time for him."

Whitbeck was killed Jan. 30, 1968. Elliott said his recollection is that the jeep Whitbeck was riding in that day was hit by a mortar during an attack.

It was created by Samuel Elliott and depicts Private Leo Claiburne "Clay" Buckley, Jr. Photo / Washington Post
It was created by Samuel Elliott and depicts Private Leo Claiburne "Clay" Buckley, Jr. Photo / Washington Post

After Elliott left Vietnam he stayed in the Army for 15 years, but was medically discharged with migraine headaches. "That's when my life began to fall apart," he said. "I was lost."

An instant connection
Buckley was originally from Vienna, Va., his wife, Susan, said in a telephone interview this month.

She said he joined the Army in 1968, when he was 19, and was "blown up" in 1969, after being in Vietnam about three months.

His combat injuries were severe.

"His leg was badly damaged," she said. "They wanted to take it off, but he wouldn't let them. . . . He didn't wear anything but long pants for the longest period of time. . . . Half his leg was missing in the calf."

He had also been peppered with shrapnel. "He used to sit at the kitchen table and dig . . . pieces of shrapnel with a knife out of his arm," she said. He was given the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals, but seldom spoke of the war.

Discharged from the Army in 1970, Buckley, who worked as a truck driver, was reluctant to seek help for his PTSD, his wife said. "Finally I convinced him, 'You do have problems,' " she said. "He never believed that he did. About 2004 or so he finally went . . . and got treatments and medicines."

It was about that time that Buckley and Elliott crossed paths. Elliott said he was passing through the Washington area en route to an art show, and was introduced to Buckley by a mutual acquaintance.

Buckley, a student of the Civil War, took Elliott on a tour of the Manassas Battlefield, near where the Buckleys were then living.

The two men soon shared their Vietnam war experiences. "I think that's why they got along so well as soon as they met," Susan Buckley said.

Elliott told Buckley about his Vietnam sculptures, and Buckley requested one. Susan Buckley said her husband thought it was a perfect rendering of the Vietnam veterans' experience.

Elliott personalized the sculpture, adding the 173rd Airborne Brigade's blue-and-white winged patch.

Susan Buckley said the bust was prominently displayed in the living room of their home in Manassas, and later the sun porch of their home in South Carolina.

Some visitors found it "overwhelming," she said. "But I guess if you've been there, and understand why it looks like that, it's not so hard."

Recently, in the process of moving, she decided to bring the sculpture to the Wall. "I was the only one who saw it," she said. "I thought other people should see it. . . . I thought maybe it might help somebody else. . . . It's very self-explanatory if you've been in Vietnam."

She typed up a summary of her husband's service and taped it to the bottom of the sculpture. "I need to honor my husband somehow, and I thought this is the way to do it," she said.

With the help of friends, she transported the bust from South Carolina.

After she placed the piece at the Wall on Aug. 24, Gallant, the volunteer, left it there for several hours. Later, the National Park Service took custody of it and moved it to the Park Service's Museum Resource Center, in suburban Maryland.

There it joined the thousands of other objects left in tribute to those on the Wall, and to the veterans of the war who carried its legacy.

- Washington Post

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