A Visit to the Traveling Vietnam Memorial

Today, Amy and I met my pop, ma, and sister at the traveling Vietnam Memorial at Olinger’s Cemetary on Hampden. We met at 2 pm, as the sun was blazing, before the afternoon cloud cover rolled in. I couldn’t help but think about how hot it must be in the Middle East right now.

As Amy and I walked up to meet my folks, I saw Pops talking to a lean, weathered biker type. The man was wiry and little, with hair the color of sunburned straw. He sported biker colors and various military pins on his black leather vest. As we approached, he wrapped up his conversation with Pops.

“And if yer ever down that way, just stop in there and ask for me. They know who I am. I’ll probably be down there tonight-lord knows I’ll need a couple after today.” As I walked up he shook hands with Pops and walked past me, giving me a curt nod. I noticed my ma’s eyes were red. They’d been here a while already, waiting on us. I’m sure she’d been crying already.

“Everyone’s been stopping your father and thanking him for his service,” she said, her voice cracking and eyes welling up again. The last few years have been as tough on her as anyone. The war may have ended 30 years ago, but it still creeps in at the edges every once in a while for my PopsâÂ?¦ like it does for every G.I. who came back.

And the families of the 58,000 men who didn’tâÂ?¦

We walked up the path and passed this sign. One long, slow look around confirmed the verbiage. People spoke in hushed voices-walking along the black marble shelves of a library of sorrow. The only sound that pierced was the occasional honk from a horn in traffic on Hampden and the voice of the woman reading the names of the dead, one at a time, over the loudspeaker.

I was at once struck by the collection of small memorials people had brought to place at the wall. Every few feet was a Tootsie Roll, for instance. One particular memorial caught my eye, a box of pound cake and a can of cling peaches.

“I bet that was the only thing that soldier wanted when he was there,” Amy later said. Such an ordinary, easily accessible thing here, even 30 years ago, and as precious as a gem in South East Asia. Particularly sobering was the stuffed bunny someone had left behind.

Children took rubbings of some of the names, reminding me of my 8th grade trip to Washington D.C. and the names I took rubbings of to bring back for Pops when I visited the Vietnam Memorial there. Families looked for names of loved ones who perished or vanished three decades ago. Vets looked for names of fallen comrades-in-arms who fought by them, side-by-side in an overblown “police action” hampered by the ridiculous tactical concepts of “measured response.”

A particularly moving quality of the memorial is its reflective nature-inspiring quiet reflection as much as bringing home the loss of life. Seeing your own reflection bouncing back among the names of the dead must be especially tough for the men who came back-forcing them to constantly reevaluate their own worth and ensure they were living life as fully as they could out of respect for their own stay of death. It’s something my Pops has struggled with from time to time. Considering the lives he’s touched has a teacher and Scouter over the past 30 years, it’s something we often remind him he need not concern himself with, but I’m sure our words are a bit hollow when it’s three in the morning and the house is silent and he’s haunted by the past. Again, something I’m sure affects the lives of every G.I. who came back and the families of the 58,000 men who didn’t.

Not a soul was able to traverse the length of the wall without shedding at least one tear. Hopefully, our leaders take some time on their own in Washington to reflect at the permanent installment-just as a reminder of the cost of any conflict, and to serve as a constant echo that our cause must be tempered with this knowledge.

For me, this was just one more reminder of how lucky I am to live here, and how proud I am of my father.

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