|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Cyndy Hollender-Stancliff became a volunteer at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial shortly after the death of her first husband, John C. Hollender, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1967-68. Since then, she has been a regular presence on the memorial grounds.
Her journey to the D.C. area began after a series of layoffs when she and John, living in her native California, one day packed their belongings, grabbed their dog, and drove their van across the country to his home town of Pittsburgh. They lived there until he died from service-related causes in 1994.
“With John gone,” Cyndy says, “there was nothing left” for her in Pittsburgh. So, on the day of his burial, she left for Maryland to stay with a friend. She initially intended to stay only a week or two, but realizing she’d have at least one friend nearby, she decided to take a chance on a new beginning.
Cyndy found herself drawn to The Wall, visiting often. There she met a volunteer, who seemed to be present every time she visited. They talked, laughed, and cried together. This connection moved her so much that after she landed a job, the first thing Cyndy did was ask how she, too, could volunteer.
Not long after she began volunteering at the memorial, Cyndy met Navy Vietnam veteran and fellow volunteer Paul Stancliff. For a while, they simply exchanged friendly hellos in passing. She laughs, remembering the first time they started talking to each other: “Paul stood next to me and he said, ‘Are you gonna get to work yet?’ and I said, ‘When you give me a raise.’ He said, ‘I’ll give you 25 percent,’ and I said, “Well, 25 percent of nothing is still nothing.’ ”
Cyndy and Paul built a lighthearted relationship, joking, laughing, and having a good time together. “All we did was have fun,” she said. She brought him into VVA’s Northern Virginia Chapter 227. Cyndy had been a member even before the VVA-AVVA split and for a while edited the chapter newsletter. Paul took right to the chapter, eventually serving on its board and four years as its president.
One Fourth of July Paul, who also had been widowed, asked Cyndy, “You wanna buy me lunch?” She agreed, and they went to nearby 22nd Street, where they always parked their vehicles. Paul surprised her by producing a picnic of epic proportions, including a hot dog grille. Afterward, he took her to the Sylvan Theater on the National Mall to listen to a concert by Allison Krauss and Union Station, a local bluegrass band. They finished the night watching the fireworks near the Washington Monument.
Cyndy laughs, “I always say, fireworks flew for me that day, for sure.”
They married a few years later, on May 9, 1999, and enjoyed nearly 22 years together. They continued volunteering at The Wall and traveled around the country attending Paul’s yearly reunions of the U.S.S. Boston, having many laughs until Paul’s death on January 19.
Cyndy loves volunteering at The Wall, especially for the connections she’s made with people from around the world. She estimates that she and Paul volunteered about 100 hours a year together. She has no intention of stopping, and she looks forward to organizing events “as soon as we can have ceremonies again.” She particularly enjoys the children who ask thoughtful questions. “That’s our future. We want them not to forget.”
When asked if she has a favorite memory at The Wall aside from meeting Paul, Cyndy doesn’t hesitate. “There’s a group called Operation Freedom Bird out of Arizona. The first year I was down there, I was the only one there when here come these 50 guys.” She spent hours helping locate names, learning about their organization, and getting to know founder Pat Lynch and counselors Ken Benckwitz and Joe Little.
Since their first meeting, Cyndy makes sure she is waiting at The Wall every year in November no matter the weather when the OFB group comes to town. “Joe and I somehow got this connection between us,” Cyndy says. “We were down at The Wall one day about 13 years later. Joe was always around. Every time I’d turn around, he’d be there, and we got to talking.”
In previous years, she and Joe never really had had much chance to talk, only exchanging snippets of conversation. But then they realized that Cyndy’s first husband had been in country the same time Joe was, and both were stationed in Tay Ninh. “I told him my late husband was on a mountain called Nui Ba Den. Joe stared at me for a minute and said, ‘Cyndy, I was on Nui Ba Den.’
“Back then Wall volunteers had big thick binders that we personalized, and I had a picture of John in Vietnam on mine.” While talking to Cyndy, Joe glanced at the photo and said “John.” Startled, Cyndy looked at him and said, “Joe, I never told you his name.”
Joe Little and John Hollender had played poker together on Nui Ba Den. “It was a connection like no other,” Cyndy said. “It was like I found something I had lost. It is the best memory I have down there. That Wall is full of healing power and just brings people together.”
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