This past Independence Day the Thornton Veterans Memorial Foundation had the pleasure of hosting the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall in our city. To say the event was extraordinary would be an understatement. Tens of thousands of people came to see this incredible memorial, hundreds more volunteered their time to help at the event and dozens of area businesses supported the event. The effect the Wall has on those who see it is indescribable and as I sit here writing this message I am drawn back to that very special weekend. What we saw during those five days serves as a very poignant reminder of why we set aside one day a year – November 11th – to honor our nation’s veterans.
The Wall honors those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and like many, I had a connection to a couple of the more than 58,000 names inscribed in black on the Wall. We paid them all tribute that weekend but just as importantly we honored all veterans. Veterans Day is set aside to honor those that survived, those that have memories of places and events the rest of us can only imagine, those that even today suffer the hidden scars of war.
For all the events that very special weekend, one brief encounter stands out in my mind’s eye more than any other. Probably one of the hardest things to do was to volunteer as a “Wall attendant.” These were the people tasked with helping visitors find names of comrades, friends and family on the Wall. What a truly heart wrenching experience this was – as you were tasked with showing someone the name of their loved ones on the memorial.
One day a gentleman came to ask for help finding the names of five of his former comrades. I dutifully looked up the names and their locations on the Wall and wrote them down for him. As I wrote, it occurred to me that all five were on the same panel spread across two lines. My heart began to race as I realized what this meant - his friends had all died at the same time.
The old soldier asked me to take him to the names so we walked to the Wall and as we located the panel with the names, I stepped forward to help him locate the exact line with his comrades but he simply could not get any closer. He actually took a step back, staring at the sea of names and began to cry. Soon this “young sailor” was hugging an old Army veteran as the tears streamed from both of our eyes. As we talked with our arms around each other, he explained to me that he was the sole survivor of his scout unit from a fateful day in North Vietnam when they came under attack.
"John" never did get any closer to the Wall and the names of his friends. 40 years later it was just too much. He simply stared at the names from afar, bowed his head in silence for a few moments and walked away into anonymity.
Had I met John on any other day or any other place, I would have never known his story as I am sure it is not one he tells often if at all. There are so many other veterans like John who live amongst us every day never saying a word about the things they have done and seen; never seeking the spotlight; never asking for recognition. It is for these men and women that we celebrate Veterans Day.
As the history of the United States of America is written, it is filled with stories of those who have stood up and made a difference for our great nation. Not a year has gone by since the birth of our country that those that have served in the armed forces haven’t answered the call. This call may have been to simply stand a watch, fix an airplane, drive a supply truck or carry a gun on patrol, but they were all done in service of the greater good, our freedom and keeping the United States strong. Millions have served with the pride, honor, courage, and commitment that have made this nation what it is today.
From the Revolutionary War to Operation Iraqi Freedom, from Concord to Kabul, whether war time or peace, millions of men and women have stepped forth to ensure this nation and other nations remain free. These men and women have paid a high price for our freedom, selflessly sacrificing for an honorable cause. They have done so not for fortune or fame but because they felt a calling to something greater and without hesitation they stood bravely and answered the call. Their sacrifice can never be forgotten as long as we ensure their flame burns eternally at memorials across this nation, in our nation’s consciousness and indeed, in the very souls of all Americans.
George Orwell said, “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” As you go about your daily routine today, take the time to notice those men – and women – that have stood watch over us and kept us safe. Take a brief moment to say thank you. Those two words, while seemingly inadequate for someone who saved and defended the world, will mean more to a veteran than any award they could be given.
God bless you all, God bless our veterans and God bless America.
Thanks to you, Tony, for sending.