WASHINGTON, D.C.- A holiday weekend for lounging by the lakeside, department store sales, and catching up on neglected errands, we approach Memorial Day with the same glee reserved for all 3-day weekends. Yet as we kick off the start of summer with friends and BBQ, we ought take a quick moment to remember the day’s sobering purpose.
Last Veteran’s Day I met a Vietnam veteran who flew to Washington, D.C. to see the Vietnam War Memorial for the first time. David was a platoon leader during the bloodiest years of the war at the budding age of 18. He hadn’t enlisted, rather was drafted and was scared to death to go. He rose through the ranks for being quick-thinking, orderly, and tough as nails (I could see glimpses of this even now). However, it only took a few long and devastating days for most of his platoon to be killed in a nasty fire fight.
A month prior he met a stranger in a coffee shop who generously offered to fund a trip to D.C. after they’d got to talking about Vietnam, David’s platoon, and the horrible guilt he’d carried with him since their deaths.
Recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, David was desperate to get to D.C. fearing he might not get another chance. He brought the American flag he’d carried with him throughout Vietnam to place at the names of his platoon and say a final good-bye.
I had my camera on me that day so I accompanied him to the memorial to take his picture. I asked David what it was like in Vietnam, realizing I never had the chance to talk with a Vietnam War veteran like this before.
“It was hot and rained all the time,” he said. “We wanted to go home. When we landed back in the U.S. we kissed the dirt and thanked God we were alive. But when we got back everyone hated us. People even spit at us.”
It was difficult to find words to respond. There was nothing I could say that could comfort him of things that still seared decades later.
Now at the memorial, my mouth was dry and I felt like I had no place at David’s reunion with his old platoon. But David motioned for me to join.
He removed his gloves to reach out and touch the name of a fallen solider. He admitted he didn’t know the given names of his men. They used nicknames to keep from getting too attached. He looked left to right taking in all the names, almost as if he was trying to absorb each one as it might have been one of his friends.
At that moment, I became painfully aware of these war dead. What’s more, despite the existence of a memorial to gather the grieving, I felt the deep importance of personal reflection to honor the men and women who understand unfathomable things about living, dying, and the ugliest side of humanity. No one understands this better than our living veterans and no one bares this heavy burden quite like they do.
As time passes, the Vietnam War, WWII, and others will seem as distant to us then as the Civil War is now. There will be no one to act as living reminders or to honor in parades and ceremonies. As these firsthand memories fade, it is our responsibility to remember the past starting with a few minutes of silence for our honored dead on Memorial Day.