I wanted to wait until all the parades, picnics, car dealer’s, grocery store’s and department store’s sales had ended and all the politicians in the country had their five minutes of air time to talk about how much they respect and are devoted to caring for them, in other words until the noise died out for another year. Now, I can talk about something strange related to Veteran’s Day and me.
Every time I have visited the black marble wall know as the Viet Nam Memorial, located in our nations capital, across the street from the Lincoln Memorial, I have wept openly and unashamedly as I read names of friends, and relatives, carved into my own reflection, looking back at me.
For each name I recognize, a whole encyclopedia of memories come alive in my mind. I remember the sounds of their voices and the peculiar way each person has of walking; I remember the things we would talk and dream about when we were kids. For the friends I made after leaving home, I remember how much we all changed during the eight weeks of basic training we endured, and how we thought we were really hot stuff after the various advanced training schools we attended. I sometimes feel like I can remember every moment we had spent together. It is an eerie experience but in a much larger sense, it is a cleansing and healing experience.
This year, on Memorial Day and as Veteran’s Day neared, I realized that as much as I remember about the men whose names are etched into the black marble wall, I remember almost nothing about the men’s names that are not etched there. I had the honor to know and to serve with some of the best young men this country produced; yet all I have are some vague memories of them. I kept in touch with a few of the guys for a short time, but we each had our own paths to follow and our lives to build. I wondered why this phenomenon existed, and why, after so many decades, I am just now facing the fact of it’s existence.
Just as an aside, I was Regular Army (RA), meaning I joined the service. Many of my friends were drafted. When I joined the service, the draft age was twenty-three. Many of my friends were as much as eight years older than me. We would often talk about how unfair it was that they were pulled away from home and family or from college after they had worked so hard to start a life. I remember that some of the guys had one or two kids and I remember two of the guys were working in research, having already earning a PhD, one in Physics, one in Chemistry. I do remember one guy I worked with was actually a lecturer in Mathematics at U.C. Berkley, where he earned his PhD. I remember him because of his education and the fact that he was Chinese and was not an American Citizen. I remember that one of the guys wanted to coach football at my high school and another guy that had been an English teacher in Washington DC. The thing that made him so memorable was the fact that he was very soft spoken but was an avid body builder and world-class power lifter. I am sure that he did not have much classroom disruption.
It is just these few distant and dim memories, of just a few of the fantastic men I served with and who either lived through the Southeast Asian Experience or I have missed their names among the fifty-eight thousand whose names appear on “The Wall.”
I think the reason I remember the dead better than the live is because the owners of those names will always be guys in their late teens or early twenties. There is not so much to remember because they never had the time to build a life, to build a career, to build a family. They will always be kids, kids that were snatched away so suddenly, and so violently that some of us have still not processed the fact of their death. I look in the mirror and I see someone who will be seventy in just a couple of years but when I see the names of my lost friends, I see young kids, most of them younger than some of my grandchildren.
To make my feelings clear, The men, it was an all male fighting force then, I served with, and who lived past their days in the military, were all great men, great friends, and men that America can, and should be, proud of. Just because their memories have faded does not detract from the pride I have in them and the honor I feel to have been allowed to serve with them. They are no less precious that those whose names grace The Wall. The difference is that the dead are memories only; the living are reminders of whatever trauma each person suffered in those early days of our lives. They make it all too real.
Our veterans deserve more from us than we have given them. The dilution of Veteran’s benefits over the years is a disgrace. To know that there are men and women who put their lives on the line for their country can now be found homeless and sleeping under bridges, denied health care for the hidden wounds that many have suffered due to head trauma at the hands of enemy IED makers, denied help in finding decent employment, denied the respect that each of them deserve from each one of us.
This same essay has likely been written by every generation that has faced war throughout history and will be written by every generation to come. This is just my edition and I would like to use my edition to say to those that left us way too soon, in any armed conflict, THANK YOU and I am sorry for all you have missed. To those who survived, I would like to say THANK YOU and to say I am sorry for the poor treatment many of you have received and will continue to receive. I hope things will change for veterans of future generation.
To all Veterans, God bless you for your courage and your service!