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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.