CHICAGO - Vietnam veteran Paul Baffico hasn't been on the battlefield for more than 45 years, but he is still on an extraordinary mission. In Vietnam, he was a 23-year-old combat communications platoon leader, witnessing the horrific deaths of soldiers who served under his command. In all, five of his soldiers were killed. And their deaths are driving him to take a healing journey. He is trying to find inner peace and silence his mind from the past.
IN HIS OWN WORDS, IN DEPTH
So every month, Baffico takes a trip from Lake Bluff to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. He has made the monthly trip for more than 11 years. In other words, 139 consecutive months.
A Vietnam veteran's journey, in his own words
"I don't want to forget these guys," said Baffico, who served in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne. "I can't explain why they got killed and I got to live, but I did. And I need to do something with that. That really is the essence of why I come here."
Baffico wasn't alone. As he says, his wife Max "saved me."
THE FIRST TRIP
In 1996, a grim-faced Baffico made his first trip to the Wall with his son Jeff. It was a school trip with his youngest son, and it didn't go well.
"I could only stand there for 30 to 40 seconds," Baffico explained. "I started to break down. I said, 'Jeff, we got to go. I can't stand it.' He understood."
Ten years later, his wife Max suggested he visit the memorial and told Baffico, "How about if you just talk to your men themselves? Maybe that would work."
Baffico reluctantly returned. He stood in front of the panels where the names of five soldiers under his command are etched: Michael D. Bohrman, Kenneth B. Luttel, Kenneth P. Tanner, Andre C. Lucas, and Gus Allen.
He spoke to them directly.
"Of course, I started with 'I'm sorry,'" Baffico said, continuing with tears. "I wish you were standing here and my name was on that wall. I really meant that from the bottom of my heart."
A DOCENT NAMED LEROY
At that point, Baffico said a docent named Leroy approached him. Their story, their bond moved Baffico to do something he never expected. It was a moment that kicked off Baffico's mission: monthly trips to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
A Docent Named Leroy
TOUCHING THEIR NAMES ON THE WALL
So today, if you visit the memorial, you may see Paul Baffico. He'll be standing in front of his men's names on panels 8-11. And once there, like Baffico, you can honor each service member by touching their names on the wall.
VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL RESOURCES
Information on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Information for planning your visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.