11 November 2008

Veterans Day 2008

It was a glorious fall Monday in late October 1997. Twenty-five years after my last combat tour in Southeast Asia I was finally going to visit “The Wall,” the Vietnam Memorial. Up until that time I really had no desire to see it; I knew at least a dozen names that are there and it would do no good to go and actually look at them. Besides, I live 1200 miles away and there was never a good time to go that far to see things I already knew existed. We finally got an excuse with the wedding of an old Air Force acquaintance’s daughter in Fairfax, Virginia.

So, the Monday after the wedding four of us, my wife and I and the parents of the bride, took the Metro up to the Mall for a look at the Vietnam Memorial. We had other sites on the itinerary: The Holocaust Museum, for one, but I wanted to make sure I went over to the Vietnam Memorial just to see it. After visiting the Holocaust Museum we made our way down the Mall, past the Washington Monument and in the general direction of my objective. First we came upon the Korean War Memorial: the figures of those 19 poncho-clad GIs, forever on patrol, were eerie – even ghostly. Not far away stands the Vietnam Nurses Memorial. The mother of the bride had been an Air Force nurse in the mid-1960s and she wanted to see that small monument to big sacrifices. A row of trees separates it from the black granite slabs that make up the Vietnam Memorial itself. From where we stood you can see the Vietnam Memorial through the line of trees. Scanning the tree line I saw a Yaqui Indian man. He was standing in the tree line and was performing some kind of ceremony with an eagle feather. By the look of him he might have been a Vietnam veteran himself. I don’t know if his ceremony was for the benefit of his tribesmen or for the more than 58,000 names on those black granite slabs. In any case we watched him and in a few minutes he completed his ceremony, packed up his regalia, and went on his way.

We made our way around the tree line and started at the registry that matches all those names with the slabs they are listed on. I went back and forth several times looking up names and then find the slabs and locating the names I was looking for. Most of the names were in small clusters since the men had died in the same actions. I was scanning one particular slab for an elusive name when I noticed a young woman standing thirty or forty feet to my left. She was blonde; she wore a black overcoat over business attire and looked like she might be some office worker on her lunch break. She just stood there facing one of the panels; she held a single red long-stemmed rose and a white envelope. I looked at her for a few seconds and then went back to my task at hand. I finally located the name I was looking for and looked back to where the young woman had been standing. She was gone and now the rose and envelope she had held were lying at the base of the memorial. I walked over to see what she had left. There was the long-stemmed rose and a white greeting card-sized envelope. It was addressed to “Daddy.”

I wonder now, as I wondered then, whether “Daddy” ever had the chance to see his little girl. Clearly, the young woman missed her father and honored his memory with her presence.

I wonder now whether the history of 1973 will repeat itself and we will preemptively leave the Middle East before the job is done. If that happens Karl Marx will once again be proved wrong: history repeating is tragedy the second time around also.

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