Easing Along

Retiree visits Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Three Fallen Friends

The Three Soldiers

The Three Soldiers

Throughout the long course of one’s life it is probable that most can look back and identify moments or events that became turning points which altered the direction we were taking. For me, the big event taking place in the lives of all of us my age in the late 1960’s was the Vietnam War. And, for many, the way we dealt with that event became a significant turning point. This travelling retiree needed to visit a place symbolic of a couple of those turning points.

In the 1960’s all men were required to register for the draft at age 18.  Everyone I knew at the time did that.  Some were drafted…some, right out of high school. Others were able to defer military service by attending college and making satisfactory progress toward a degree, then serve. Thousands chose to serve in the Peace Corps. Some claimed objections to serving on conscientious grounds. I knew a few who did that.  I don’t know anyone personally who refused service altogether, but as the war and the draft became unpopular, a lottery was created and many were given high numbers and were not called. Some served anyway.

I was one of those with a deferment to attend college, but I was also working and got behind in my credit hours. It just so happened that at about that time an Army Reserve unit moved into town and started up near campus.  It was flooded with applicants, many were students like me, and on one June evening in 1968 I stood with over 200 brand new Army Privates as we were sworn into the Army Reserve.

Swearing in resulted in turning point number one in my life when in April 1969 I was placed on a bus destined for Ft Bragg, NC.  I waved through the window at my girlfriend who was crying while waving back.  We continued waving until we could no longer see each other. That was tough!

Looking around the bus I saw about 60 young men, all draftees, on the bus with me.  Many of them had no idea they would be shipping out that day. They thought that after the swearing in ceremony they would go home and await orders or a phone call (or something).  But Uncle Sam had other plans and that was swear you in and ship you out…now! Most of these men had never been away from home, and looked to be about 17 (I was an old man at 20).  They seemed a bit bewildered, but not frightened or sad.  A lot of them knew each other because they had travelled together to the induction station from a small town nearby. There was a lot of chatter on the bus until we reached Ft Bragg around midnight and immediately began processing.  Busses were arriving non-stop all night bringing new recruits from everywhere, and I guessed that there were well over one thousand men in the large hall where we had been placed.

We never slept that first night as we completed paperwork, were given brief physicals, received many uniforms, given shots, completed paperwork, given underwear, completed more paperwork, then packaged everything we brought with us and sent it home.  We took a battery of tests, and completed more paperwork. Exhausted, we were marched to an old barracks late that second day with the promise of sleep.

As soon as the lights were out, one of the draftees began needling a buddy.  The buddy needled back and before anyone knew it a pillow fight broke out between most of the guys in the room.  I was too exhausted to take part, so I just lay there, thinking about the fact that these really were just kids with no idea what lay ahead.  To this day, I wonder how many of them were alive two years after this little ruckus in the barracks. Looking back, I think that was the turning point when I began to grow up. Life had had just become a little more serious. I missed my girlfriend too…

I made it through basic training and AIT at Ft Lee, VA and lost 20 pounds in the process.  Those sixteen weeks became what was probably the most profound learning experience of my young life.  Being placed in a barracks with fifty complete strangers of all races, religions, educational levels, as well as backgrounds that ran the entire spectrum of American society, was an education in itself, and one for which I remain grateful to this day.

I made many friends during this time, but when AIT was completed, we all shook hands and made promises to keep in touch, but never did.  As a Reservist, I returned home to attend meetings while these guys remained on active duty to serve out their enlistments. After about a year at home, and rekindling the relationship with my girlfriend, another turning point came for me when I decided I was bored with reserve meetings and I enrolled in ROTC.  That decision was one of the best I ever made. I finished college, got married, then served four years on active duty (in Germany) and 20 more years in the reserves, retiring as a LT Colonel.   I was one of the lucky ones.  Within a year after I re-entered active duty, very few service members were being sent to Vietnam, and  America was at relative peace for 20 plus years.

In the forty-some years since leaving Ft Lee, I only reconnected with one person from my time as an enlisted soldier after Googling his name. Thankfully he was alive and well and had made a home in New York where he and his wife had raised two daughters. I made one other friend in AIT, an extremely likeable guy from Maine, who I’ve tried to locate many times without success.  I’m hopeful that he, too, is living happily somewhere, and had not been dealt a bad hand in Vietnam.

Broad view of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Broad view of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Over the years I have been to Washington, DC many times, but have never been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On our recent trip I was determined to make it there and pay my respects to the fallen servicemen and women of my generation. The experience was very moving.

We rode the subway into Washington, DC from where we were staying in Bethesda, MD, then walked to the site of the Memorial on the Mall.  It was a stunningly beautiful weekday, and DC was buzzing.  As we walked past the White House, I caught a glimpse of Marie Harf, who I recognized as a spokesperson for the State Department, talking on her cell phone.  I am sure there were other notables all around, but none caught my eye.

With the help of a few directional signs, finding the Memorial was easy and we entered the Mall on a marked pathway.  Our first stop was at a stand containing a directory of the names on the wall.  I wrote down the location of the names of three friends from high school and moved on…quietly, suddenly being overtaken by the solemnity that surrounds the Memorial.

The next stop on the path is the statue of The Three Soldiers by Frederick Hart. The statue represents service members who fought the conflict, presumably Army and Marine, and positioned as if they are looking over the grass and the grounds toward the Wall and the names of those who died fighting. The artistry of the statue is powerful and, as one of that era, I looked long at the faces as though they were familiar.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a massive granite wall into which the names of 58,286 service members have been inscribed. The names are placed chronologically according to the date they were killed while fighting in Vietnam. The structure is divided into panels that are low in height on each end, but very tall at the center.  The names are placed five to a row, with the number of rows varying according to the height of each panel. Except for the etched names, the panels are highly polished to reflect the image of the viewer and the grass behind. The simplicity of the design allows one to focus solely and appropriately on the names without distraction.

Visitors in front of the Wall

Visitors in front of the Wall

On this day, there was a modest number of people in front of the wall, some were alone, some in groups of two or three, all were quiet. Along the base of the wall, someone had placed laminated cards as a tribute to, and giving information about, three individuals whose names were inscribed there.  I later learned that this was a common practice.

Tributes to the fallen

Tributes to the fallen

One man was making a pencil rubbing of one of the names.  Several were taking pictures of individual names, and I decided I should do the same.  I referred to the notes I made from the directory and began to look for the names of three men I had known in high school. I found each name and photographed it.  I was very relieved that I had not found the name of my friend from Maine.

The three names I found are shown below with some notes about them from memory.

Charles H. Pilkington, Jr

2nd Lt Charles H. (Chip) Pilkington, Jr

 

 

 

 

 

Chip was two classes ahead of me in high school, and when I think of him it is always with a smile on his face.  He had many friends and was voted best looking guy in his class.  While I didn’t know him all that well, I knew very well the beautiful and fun-loving girl he married.  At their wedding, his bride to be walked down the aisle to a handsome young groom who cut a dashing figure in the dress white uniform of a young Marine officer.  That’s the last time I saw him.  He was in Vietnam a little over three months when he was killed.

William B Bishop

SGT William B. (Bill) Bishop

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bill Bishop lived one street over from the house where I grew up, and was one year ahead of me in high school. He was a multi sport athlete and played baseball, basketball, and ran track, excelling in all three.  Bill was a very outgoing guy and had many friends. The last time I saw him was when he gave me a ride home one summer and he told me he was about to enter the Army. He had been in Vietnam five months when he was killed in action.

LCPL Michael (Mike) Dawson

LCPL Michael (Mike) Dawson

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Dawson and I were in the same class and met at tryouts for freshman basketball.  We both made the team, but if anyone saw us play the game, it would be easy to understand how we had lots of time to become very well acquainted sitting on the far end of the bench. We only played that one year and were not close after that. Mike was a quiet guy–the caption under his senior picture in the school yearbook read “A quiet tongue makes a wise head”. Nevertheless, his facial expression always made him seem lighthearted and at peace. He was drafted and placed into the Marine Corps as a machine gunner. I later read that he was killed in heavy fighting after being in country for seven months.

We left the solemn grounds of this part of the Mall and walked over to the Lincoln Memorial.  As I travelled up the 58 steps to President Lincoln’s statue, it was hard not to notice the large number of people there in contrast to the relative few in front the Vietnam Memorial.  There were hundreds of visitors around Lincoln and groups were constantly arriving, taking pictures,  sunning themselves on the steps, just joyful to be there.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

I tried to understand the difference in the atmosphere surrounding two locations so close to each other. 

Thinking it over helps to bring the contrast into focus.  With one, there is tremendous respect paid to a great man who re-united a divided country, albeit at a tremendous cost. With the other, we have 58,315 names on a wall of granite, and we can’t help but recall that their sacrifice was in an undeclared and unpopular conflict that deeply divided a great nation.  I walked away with a touch of sadness, but grateful to have shared a moment with some very courageous men…and give them the respect they deserve and so bravely earned.

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6 thoughts on “Retiree visits Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Three Fallen Friends

  1. Gloria Sharrar

    Joe, your visit to the Vietnam memorial touched me deeply. I too have visited that memorial and searched for the same names you did. Odd, how I remembered those particular guys even though I had never really known them. The Vietnam War was a very strange time in our lives, fighting in the jungles, fearing the agent orange napalm, returning home to the hatred of the war and the military. I have visited the memorial several times and have never left there with dry eyes. It was probably this country’s most poorly understood conflict, and our soldiers who served there were never properly thanked or taken care of. With Veterans Day soon upon us, my husband, Dave, will attend services at his granddaughters’ schools, carrying with him the green Army hat that he wore as a First Lieutenant. He and many other veterans, including those who have served in the God-forsaken Middle East fight against terrorism, will be honored and respected……you have shown profound respect for our BHS classmates by helping us remember the Fallen Ones. Thank You for taking the time to do that.

    1. jobruner01 Post author

      Many thanks Gloria. I have always been conflicted about Vietnam. Never really certain as to why we were there, never wanted to go myself, but felt I had to support and honor those who went. I still vividly remember being shouted at for wearing my ROTC uniform while on campus. It was a very strange time indeed.

  2. Dianne Bales Spear

    Your “Retiree visits Vietnam. . .” brought me to tears. . .not surprising since every time I read heartfelt articles about that war, tears have been the result. I have visited Washington, DC several times over the years since the memorial was finished, I always visit the and have never left without being in tears. Each time I have been there it has always been quiet. If there is talking, it is in quiet whispers. . . the reasons probably as many as there are names on that wall, sadness, regret, reverence, loss, respect and on and on. . . Every time I’ve visited there have been remembrances left at the base of the wall sometimes hundreds and other times only a few. I know the park service leaves them for a period of time and then cleans them up. And it all starts again the next day. One time I visited at night. It is still quiet, still sad and still feelings of loss, but that is also when the homeless vets come to visit. The one time I was there at night it was cold and there were several vets wearing old military jackets, usually camouflage. They were kneeling or standing, not together, but singularly probably in front of the name of a fallen comrade. It was a vision of unspeakable sadness. I always leave with a heavy heart and tears running down my face. To me, honor with loss and sadness are the feelings that surround the Vietnam Memorial. I think that part of the sadness for me is knowing how long it took before anyone decided to acknowledge and honor the great sacrifice that our generation made, not for our own country, but for another one thousands of miles away.

    I always visit Mr. Lincoln at his memorial, and you are right, the atmosphere is the opposite. I hope when you were there that you went downstairs under the memorial to the room where the walls are inscribed with Lincoln’s writings. The last time I was there I visited the room. It was amazing. I read as many of them as I could before my group had to leave. I could have stayed for hours just reading the walls. President Lincoln was a very special man, a brilliant man and his writing attest to his love of God and this country. I always leave this memorial with a feeling of hope. . . hope in the Lord that I serve and hope for this country that so many of my family and friends have fought for in every war since the American Revolution.

    Loving your blog and enjoying the trip through your eyes.

    Blessings to you and Helen,

    Dianne

    1. jobruner01 Post author

      Dianne, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I suppose for people of our age there will be a little bit of Vietnam in us forever. Thankfully, we have the Memorial to help us honor and remember those who never made it back. I can’t believe I had never been, but I will go back. All the best to you.

  3. Nancy Sweet Williams

    Wonderful blog, Joe. It takes me right back to high school and the Vietnam years, including good memories as well as the sad ones. I most remember Chip because his family lived right across the street from us, and of course, he married one of our classmates. You accurately captured the three “boys'” personalities and character. I can not thank you enough for your service to our country. And I wish I could thank our fallen classmates as well.

    1. jobruner01 Post author

      Thanks Nancy. Thinking about you last night as MSU took care of UM. Thanks for visiting Easin’ Along also. These were great guys and I want to keep the memory of all our Vietnam vets alive. They were never thanked enough. Take care! JCB

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