When I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the black wall etched with names of those killed during that conflict, I didn’t expect to be so moved.
I’d seen photographs and film clips of the wall. I’d read about the controversy over the design – a simple, gleaming wall made up of black panels on the National Mall. Each panel contains names — more than 58,000 — of service men and women who died during the nation’s long armed conflict in Vietnam. I knew what to expect. I didn’t know how much I would feel.
I made my only visit to Washington, D.C, 25 years ago. A couple of friends who had served in Vietnam urged me to make the wall a priority on my list of things to see. The trip was mostly business. I had parts of a couple of evenings to do tourist things. “Make time for the wall,’’ my friends said. "Be prepared to be moved.’’ I took their advice and made time. I thought I was prepared to be touched, but then I saw that long wall filled with names and I saw the Teddy bears and combat boots and military medals and photographs that had been placed along the base of the wall by previous visitors.
The evening was overcast and humid. Rain threatened, as I recall. I think a few sprinkles did fall from time to time. A light fog, just enough to set a somber mood, lay over the mall, playing little tricks with the shadows created by the glow from streetlights along the sidewalks. An editor friend who’d been there before guided me to the spot and stood back, lost in his own thoughts and feelings. Before I even drew close enough to make out individual names, I found myself stopping, looking at the memorial and trying to control my breathing. The pictures I’d seen didn’t do justice to the real thing. The enormity of the sacrifice represented by the names on the wall is almost too much to take in.
After a short while, I started at one end and walked along the wall, reading names randomly as I went. I couldn’t read all of them, of course, not in a short visit. I did formally search out the name of a college friend who went to war to fly helicopters and never came home. By chance I saw the name of a kid I’d known in high school and the names of a couple of other service member I recognized as being from South Dakota.
Vietnam was my generation’s war. I didn’t serve, but I knew — still know, thankfully — many who did. Most of them came back, more or less in one piece. An infantry guy who became my friend later in life would, when asked about Vietnam, shrug and say, “I went and I served. I did the best I could and I came home.’’
Our nation has been involved in armed conflicts from the time it came into being. It took a war to break from England, after all. Each war has its heroes. We all know that. Each war has many more men and women whose names go unrecognized but who, like my friend, went, did the best they could and came home. Each war has too many who never came home.
Those men and women, the ones who didn’t make it, are the ones we honor each Memorial Day. Sure, many of us use the day to visit graves of family members. That’s fine. But the meaning of the day lies with the soldiers and sailors and fliers who died serving the country. It only takes a few more minutes at the cemetery to seek out some of those markers and reflect on the service each one represents.
A quote attributed to President George W. Bush says, “Their sacrifice was great, but not in vain. All Americans and every free nation on earth can trace their liberty to the white markers of places like Arlington National Cemetery.’’
The same can be said about the names on the wall and on the markers in every local cemetery.