I wrote the first version of this essay a few years before it became the memoir I have for you here. Although it is embellished a bit—literary license—it’s essentially all true. Since 2010 more names have been added. Some should be that have been denied because they died “outside the combat zone” during training. Many are still fighting the Agent Orange fiasco. I’ve posted it before, but on Memorial Day, it’s still fitting, I think. Please, feel free to share. They died for us all, like thousands of others have done and, unfortunately, are still…usually senselessly.
The black wall draws me each time. Despite the fullness of emotion that inevitably brings tears to my eyes, I cannot stay away. Too much of me—my generation, my country, and its future—carved in the growing rows of names demands the same silent recognition, pride, and frustration that I see in those, like me, who come to stand and weep. I have tried to honor those who served and died and not be overcome, but I always fail. The depth of that scar in the earth and the nation’s soul is too much for me; I shiver in despair at the loss it represents. Whether late at night, in the brightest summer afternoon, or in cold rain or snow, the shining glory of unselfish sacrifices listed there demand of me a pride and strength of will that keep me coming back.
I first visited the Vietnam Memorial one sunny spring morning. Cherry blossoms bloomed; the city showed off its best look. The country was in the midst of economic boom, and everyone enjoyed life. I had taken the afternoon off from meetings to do some sight seeing. After a quick look at the Lincoln Memorial, I started down the walk, following a crowd of other noisy tourists. We jostled and joked and enjoyed ourselves.
The closer we drew to the edge of that ebony stone, the quieter we became. Soon voices were nothing more than part of the quiet murmurs of the wind in nearby trees and the background noise of city traffic. I walked farther, watching different people gather there under the spell of reverence for the growing expanse of the Wall.
A wide-eyed little girl in cornrows and pigtails held her mother’s hand. “Nanna, is that Grandpa’s name?” The sobbing woman knelt before the Wall. Three grieving women, young and old, offered sorrow and a handful of flowers. The air was heavy with the scent of lilies, roses, lilac, and cherry blossoms already placed against the Wall that morning.
Nearby, a graying veteran in old fatigues wept audibly. From his wheelchair, he drew himself erect to salute his fallen comrades. A silent file of onlookers passed, their sympathy a physical presence.
School-uniformed teenagers under the sad, watchful eyes of their teacher, made pencil rubbings of names. One boy whispered to a nearby friend, “Dad says I’m just like Uncle Mike. I never knew him, but he was only three years older than I am when he died . . . his second tour.”
I gazed at the countless tributes. Families, small groups of friends, individuals—hundreds passed by the Wall and left behind flowers, Teddy bears, notes, cards, letters, photographs, medals, rings . . . memories . . . innocence, and, most of all, tears. The Wall is a place for personal grief.
Black granite panels rise out of the ground on the east and west and meet in the center at a height of more than ten feet: an alphabetical listing of 58,235 fathers and sons and brothers, and eight mothers and daughters and sisters—an entire generation—lost. The first names in the center honor Major Dale R. Buis and Master Sergeant Chester M. Ovnand, U.S. servicemen killed in the 1959 attack at Bienhoa. They were originally recognized as the first to die. Then in 1983, a year after the Wall was dedicated, Army Captain Harry C. Cramer was added. Captain Cramer died on October 21, 1957, in a training action. Also in the center is the last panel, where the list of names continues to grow. Veterans succumb thirty and forty years later to the war’s silent killers.
The long list from 1968 includes those who graduated from high school when I did, and in the last years of the war, those who might have been my friends from college. PFC Douglas Beckman, my sister-in-law’s cousin, was turning around a troubled life, but stepped on a mine in Quang Tri and lost his chance. Captain Wayne McConkey, a reservist from Shenandoah, Iowa, where we raised our sons, died when his helicopter was shot down and didn’t get to see his daughter become a person who would make him proud. Captain Mary Klinker enlisted to help the children and died when her transport plane went down while evacuating orphans from Saigon following the truce.
I’ve been back to the Wall many times since then. I can’t stay away when I’m in the capital. If I don’t have time to visit anywhere else, I make time to go there. I feel as if I’m living their lives as well as mine, and do the best I can to remember the debt I owe. Each time I visit, each step of that 493-foot long headstone is painful. When I see the names and think of the loss, when I see the others who come, I remember . . . and let the tears fall.