Memorial Day, now the last Monday in May, is a designated federal holiday to honor members of the military who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. With the COVID epidemic, we are reminded that many other Americans are important and deserve recognition – first responders, firemen, policemen, doctors, nurses, medical technicians, nursing home personnel, scientists, researchers, and the list goes on. But, this day is set aside specifically for the memory of military personnel. A friend of mine, published author and fighter pilot, J.D. Wetterling, sent a piece to the Wall Street Journal. It was published for Memorial Day 1996. It is still poignant.
Vietnam was “our generation’s” war. I have written two books about my Vietnam experiences. It was a long, terrible, ugly, and tragic jungle war. J.D. writes about his visit to the Vietnam Wall. For those of us who were there, we could substitute our own friend’s names in J.D.’s story. I visit the Wall periodically when I travel to D.C. Maya Lin’s monument is a simple but brilliant design – 58,276 names, as of 2019, engraved on 140 polished granite panels. It is the most visited monument in our Capitol. When I look at the wall, I don’t see names. I see faces. I hear the voices of men in great danger, friends, classmates, wingmen, commanders – warning lights on, fire in the cockpit. I see ejection seats going up the rails, parachutes deploying, rescue beepers blaring, confused chatter on the radio, plaintive calls for help when the pilot hits the ground. Desperate efforts begin to keep the enemy away while rescue forces assemble to ingress for pickup – some successful, some not – some will return home to cheering squadron mates, others will become POWs, some will end up as names on the Wall. This is the tragedy of war – detritus on both sides. I am not haunted by my experiences. We all, both sides, did our best for what we thought was our duty to our respective countries. I have visited the cemetery for “The Heroes of the Ho Chi Minh Trail” in North Vietnam. I left a memento by the headstone of a Vietnamese man who died on the day of my last mission over the North – I wondered.
No, I am not haunted by my experiences, but I do remember. I think about them in some way every day. My wish is that names on the Wall serve as a reminder