My older brother just barely missed the draft in the early 1970’s. By the time I graduated from high school in 1975, the draft was over. Vietnam (or at least America’s involvement in Vietnam) was over.
If I ever had a thought about being in the military, I put that thought far out of my mind.
My uncle Bill was drafted in the mid 1960’s and served one twelve-month tour in 1966-1967. As mentioned in a previous column, Bill died in a car accident shortly upon returning home from the service.
I’ve been reaching out to the soldiers who knew him in Vietnam. I told one of them I’d be traveling to Washington, DC in March. This soldier gave me the names of six men who served in Bill’s unit and who died in the line of duty.
I took the six names, and searched through the website TheWall-usa.com to find exactly where on the wall I would find their names.
Not too surprisingly, their names were in relative proximity to each other. Another soldier told me that the names are inscribed in the order the soldiers were killed in action.
So on the unseasonably warm early March afternoon, I walked several blocks to the Capitol Mall. I had seen the Vietnam Memorial twice on previous visits. This time, the visit would take on a special meaning because in a very small way, I had a connection with the six men on the list.
There on panel 14 E, I found each name. One was a medic who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in the field of battle. He and two others were killed just three months upon arriving in Vietnam.
The enemy at a garbage dump ambushed another two soldiers. Another, a personal friend of the man who gave me the list, died on March 21 1966, forty-six years ago today as I write this column (March 21, 2012).
Each had a story. Thanks to the man who’s been helping me connect with the people who served with my uncle, I learned a little more about the six who paid the ultimate price.
I made that special trip to the Memorial to honor my uncle and those who served. I asked a woman nearby if she’d take a picture of me looking at panel 14E. The picture is much like any picture of family and friends who pass along the inclined walkway.
Looking at it, I’m reminded of a statement made by the late newspaper columnist Charles McDowell from the Richmond Times Dispatch. McDowell, who died in 2010, made an observation at the time the Memorial opened in the early years of the Reagan administration.
I cannot find the exact words, but I remember the essence of what he said during his appearance on the PBS news discussion program Washington Week in Review: “We see these names, hundreds upon hundreds of names etched into the dark granite.
We think about the magnitude of the War, both at home and on the battlefield. Hundreds and hundreds of names. Thousands of names. And then, when we look closely, we see ourselves.”
I made this visit to the Wall for my uncle. I honored the six men who I knew served with him. Everyone at the Memorial that day and everyday does the same thing: honor the people who didn’t make it home. Somewhere, in that seemingly endless etching of names, we find ourselves.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.