Archive for Thursday, October 4, 2001

Wall a reminder of what we lost

Memorial provokes shock of recognition

October 4, 2001

I learned this week of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial's ability to shock and surprise, even in the guise of the half-sized replica that is visiting De Soto through Sunday.

During a visit to the Vietnam Moving Wall Memorial, I went into the visitor's center being manned by De Soto High School students. The students were operating computers that provide the location of the 58,191 names on the wall. The students could track down a name using the year of death, hometown or nickname of the deceased.

I watched the students perform the task a few times before deciding to test their abilities. I came of age during the Vietnam era, and like all people my age I knew young men who didn't return from the war.

Fortunately, that number didn't include my close friends who went to Vietnam or family members.

I asked the students to look up one of these young men. I couldn't remember his name. Three decades is a long time to retain a name of a person who was on the periphery of friendship. But I thought I remembered the first initial of his last name and the year he was killed. I thought I knew his hometown, although he could have claimed any of three different small towns as his own. With that, the students produced a name.

As I left the tent, it occurred to me the name I was given was someone else I knew much better than the young man I was looking for. Until that moment, I had only heard second-hand rumors he was killed in Vietnam.

Although I was on the high school basketball team with the long-dead soldier for three years, I never consider him a close friend. In fact, I don't remember him developing any such friendships in high school. He had a sweet jump shot and brashness that kept people at a distance. I did talk to him during long bus rides to games and knew him to be introspective and smarter than assumed.

Looking back, I think he was one of those people who don't hit their stride in high school. The draft didn't give such young men the luxury of idly finding themselves in the late 1960s. They swelled the ranks of the Army and many ended up Vietnam. A disproportionate number of them were from rural Kansas.

I remember a close friend of mine ran into the young man when he returned from basic training. My friend, a musician, talked to the soldier at length and discovered he wanted to learn to play the guitar. They talked about getting together when he returned from Vietnam.

According to the information the student provided the other day, my acquaintance found a landmine and death in Vietnam instead.

Once I realized whom I had found, I walked to my car, not wanting to go to the wall to confirm his death. When I got to the parking lot, I knew I had to go back. I found his name on the wall's wing dedicated to those who lost their lives in the waning years of the lost war.

As I looked at the name I felt sorrow, guilt and gratitude. I thought about all the things in life a young man killed at 19 or 20 misses. I thought the possibilities this particular young man had before him. I hoped that his death was quick and that he found more camaraderie with his fellow soldiers than he did with his classmates.

He may have died 31 years ago, but I suddenly felt a hole from his absence. That's the purpose of the memorial for those of us who weren't in the war and don't confront direct experiences at the wall. It is at once an individual and collective symbol. The depth of an individual sacrifice brings home the enormity of 58,191 lost lives.

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