Inside Stories

“More Than Just Names on a Wall”

As we commemorate this Memorial Day, let us not forget nor take for granted that the freedoms, which we enjoy, came at a cost and that the highest cost was paid by those who gave their lives for them in all of America’s wars and conflicts.

Today, join me in a special remembrance for those who lost their lives in Vietnam.

The Vietnam War was a divisive time in America. Those who served, and those, who died over there, were not met with the respect and gratefulness that was given to those who came before them.

For many, it was a war that the country wanted to forget. But how do you forget those who answered our country’s call and served in some of the most dangerous and arduous battlefields in our country’s history.

Even more so, how do you forget those who gave their lives.

You can’t and you shouldn’t. And finally, we didn’t.

The national mall in Washington D.C., is known as “America’s Frontyard.” It is set off by Constitution Avenue to the north and Independence Avenue to the south. But within its acreage are situated the greatest collection of American landmarks in the country.

And one of those landmarks is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The groundbreaking occurred on March 26, 1982, the dedication on November 13, 1982. The total cost was $9 million. All raised through private funds. The design of Maya Ling Lin was chosen after a competitive process of hundreds of submissions.

It is a spread out V shape monument, with each wing having 70 inscribed and 4 uninscribed black granite panels angled at 125 degrees, with each side being 246.75 feet.  The panels decrease in height, flowing into the earth and then equally back out.

The east wall points to the Washington monument, as if to remember his warning words to Future Americans;

“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars are treated and appreciated by their nation.”

The west wall points to the Lincoln memorial with his Gettysburg address still echoing through time;

“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract.”

The names of 58,318 men and women who died in the Vietnam War or remain missing in action are placed on the wall by a process known as photo stencil grit-blasting.

The names are placed in chronological order according to the date of their death, starting with July 8, 1959 with Dale R. Buis and ending with Richard Van De Geer, May 15, 1975.

However, the first known casualty was Richard B. Fitzgibbon of North Weymouth, MA , killed on June 8, 1956. His efforts in Vietnam were not publicly known until years later. Also listed is his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, killed on September 7, 1965…… One of two pairs of confirmed Father and Son losses.

West Virginia had the highest per capita state casualty.

And Beallsville, Ohio had the highest per capita loss with six casualties out of their small population of 475.

Thomas Edison High School of Philadelphia lost 54 students.

Morenci High School, a small town in Arizona, had nine members of their basketball and football team enlist in the Marines together…….The names of six of the nine are on the wall.

In Midvale, Utah, on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh avenues, there were three boys who grew up together as close friends. Their names now appear close by each other on the wall. ….They were killed within sixteen days of each other.

Eight women, who were serving as nurses, were killed in theatre. Their names are forever inscribed on the wall.

The youngest name on the wall was Dan Bullock who was only 15 years old.

In fact, about half of the names on the wall were men and women under the age of twenty at the time of their death.

The oldest was Dwaine McGriff, who was 63.

There are 31 pairs of brothers and one pair of step brothers, whose names appear on the wall.

Twenty-two sons of Lowell paid the ultimate sacrifice and their names are inscribed on the wall….

Lowell Veterans Memorial Vietnam Tablet

Donald L. Arcand, PFC; William T. Callery PFC; John J. Carville SP4; Peter Tsirovasiles PFC; Rudolph H. Lefebvre, Jr. CPL; Joseph L. Vallee PFC; Paul L. Stewart, SSG; Peter N. Samaras, MAJ; Henry M. Sarmento, CPL; Robert E. Bigelow, PFC; Bruce R. Baxter, MSG; Richard J. Kelley FLT; Robert L. Harrison, SP4; Ronald E. Forget, SGT; Ronald A. Skelton, PFC; Richard C. St. Amand, PFC; Robert W. McCluskey, PFC; Walter J. Lemieux, SP4; Peter J. Bouchard, SGT; William J. Hodge, SSG; John Scott. Keenan, CWO; and Robert J. LaFlamme, SFC.

The statistics are to quantify. The names are to individualize. But the stories…the stories are to personalize…to remind us, that they are more than just numbers…that they are even, “more than just names on a wall”.

You know walls are usually there to divide us or to keep danger out. This wall, however, is there to unite us and to beckon us in. The shiny black granite provides a reflection of the present but through which for some, you can enter the past.

Stand there with me for a minute, in front of this gigantic dark mirror amidst the many tokens of remembrance, honor and hurt left at this hallowed memorial, like a faded polaroid, a child’s worn baseball glove, a small crucifix, an old deck of cards a pint of Seagram’s and some  cigarettes.

In its reflection, we can see some of the scenes that play out everyday before it.

Imagine with me…

As you look down the wall and to the side… you can see a man in a camouflage jacket and jeans… with an American flag, triangularly folded in his right hand… stretched up and leaning on the wall…to steady his body… as well as his emotions.

His head is bowed… as he looks down the panel to find the name… the name of his buddy…the one who didn’t make it back…The only one who would know what he experienced and how he felt.

And, as he touches that name. he is taken back to 1968… back to the jungle… back to the stories … the dreams … and the fears that they shared…one from the city, the other from the country, so different but so alike…they took care of each other when they were sick… and shared food when they were hungry.

The wall has taken him back… so that he can tell his buddy that he has never forgotten him… and that he’s done all right… and that he’s sorry that it took forty years to come here…to go back…back to the jungle… back to the horrors… and as the tears start streaming down his face… he says, “I know you ‘d understand but I still don’t”.

Down the wall just a little bit… there’s a father with his little son… The Dad is dressed in casual business attire… and the boy in jeans and a baseball jersey… It seems like your usual father and son tourist visit…

But as they stand before this black monument… they seem to be searching… searching for a specific name…the name of his father…the name of the little boy’s grandfather… Their name… except theirs has a Jr. and a Third after it…

Their dad and granddad was a West Point educated officer…

He was posthumously honored by our country for his gallantry in action…and saving the lives of his men… And then their eyes…almost simultaneously find their name…

In a personal silence… the man’s mind and seemingly his body drifts back in time… to a picture he has of his dad… donning his dress uniform… holding him close to his shoulder with a great big smile…

He doesn’t remember the day… though his mother has told him… his dad left for Vietnam the next day… but he can now… somehow feel the physical sense of safety and protection and love…that comes back to him every time he’s seen the photo.

The silence is broken up by the little boy’s question…“Dad, how old were you when gramps died?”…

“A little younger than you,“ the Father replies…

The silence returns, then the boy says, “You must have been sad, cause I would be sad if you were gone.”

The father now is overwhelmed with the memories of the loss of his dad… and the thought of not being there for his son… He is trying to hide his tears so his son doesn’t see him crying… As he looks away, he says,” Sad but I always knew he loved me… I hope you will always know that too.”

For a few more minutes there is no more talk…as they are lost in their thoughts. Then as if returning… back to the present, they leave, closer than they came.

From the back… you can hear an elderly woman speaking…

As you look into the wall… you can see that she’s in a wheel chair with two people behind her…The wheelchair has stopped proceeding forward… about ten feet short of the wall…and now in all her frailty she is struggling to get up…

The two with her are reaching to help her… but she’s demonstratively waving them off.

“I’ve got to do this myself”, she keeps saying…

Finally, she has made it to her feet… and with a cane she starts to shuffle to the panel in front of her…

As she slowly completes the trek to the wall…she starts to look for the date… December 27, 1967.

How she has since hated December 27th

The date she lost her little boy…

It has even dampened her anticipation and joy of the Christmas Holidays that she cherished so much… because she knows…right after Christmas, it comes.

As she struggles to find his nam… her companions dare not help her… They know this… she must do it on her own.

Finally… she sees it… The name she gave him…..

His first name for her husband’s dad… and his middle name for her Dad.

She reaches out… and with a motherly touch… strokes the first letter with her index finger… And, her mind starts to drift back… She is taken to a Christmas when he was just a little, little boy…

She had always looked forward to and absolutely enjoyed Christmas… She went all out… the decorations… the lights… the beautiful tree with presents underneath,… the family gathering… the Christmas carols…and her little boy’s smile…

In her mind’s eye, she can see him right there… sitting on the floor in their living-room in his pajamas with a new toy truck in front of him… smiling and playing.

And that maternal happiness returns…

For a few moments… it returns… and she is lost in a happier time.

But time moves on…and she is back to the present… and her reason for coming.

She came to say “Goodbye”…

The doctors have not been hopeful and she has that sense that they are right this time… that this is her last trip…

As she says her goodbyes, she starts to sob… and say… “Why, why God, why.”

It hurts as much as it did the day they came to her door… but it hurts in a different way…

She starts to grow shaky on her feet… Her companions move up to steady her…

She now accepts their help…. Her mission completed…

They get her back to the wheelchair… and they leave.

Her sobs fade into the distance…

Over Four million people visit the wall every year. Some are casual tourists from America and abroad. Some are school groups on an education tour.  Some are patriotic citizens, coming to pay their respects.

And, some….. some come to be healed, some come to remember and some come to say goodbye, but the common denominator for them is that they come out of love.

The loss and pain of the families of our fallen heroes lasts a lifetime and that is why we must remember, honor and appreciate what was given for us by those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and, also, by their families.

Earlier I said that they are more than just numbers or stats…that they are more than just names on a wall…the last observation comes from a song that I’ve always remembered called “More Than a Name on a Wall”

Let me close by sharing some of the lyrics with you;

“I saw her from a distance…as she walked up to the wall
In her hands she held some flowers…as her tears began to fall
And she took out pen and paper…as to trace her memories
And she looked up to heaven and the words she said were these
She said Lord my boy was special… and he meant so much to me
And Oh I’d love to see him…just one more time you see
All I have are the memories…and the moments to recall
So, Lord could you tell him, he’s more than a name on a wall.
Lord could you tell him, he’s more than a name on a wall”

They are all… more… than just names on a wall.

They are our heroes…May we never forget…


7 responses to ““More Than Just Names on a Wall””

  1. Raffoul Najem says:

    Oh wow. So profound. So full of authentic emotions Thank you for writing. May we always remember

  2. Ellen Andre says:

    Such a great detailed story, so well written. Thank you for reminding us of these very important heroes and this tribute to them.

  3. Gary Sullivan says:

    Perfectly written Pangy, thank you.

  4. Margret Hartshorn says:

    Thank you for this wonderful story.

  5. John Mckenna says:

    Nice job writing all that stuff flashes me back to some of my good friends and always wonder why they went and not me because I could have got hit many times over there and wook up many nights since then with the sound of bullets whizzing by my head did alot of crying with survivor’s guilt but I think god was with me and still is because if the shit he the fan I’m in and I still got it so god Bless America and God Bless our troops
    Uncle John (UJ)

  6. Sean Harrington says:

    Steve, thank you for writing this piece. Such a powerful explanation of how much the Vietnam War was a part of every community in America… and not all that long ago. God bless all who gave their lives for our wars.

  7. Ralph Hogan says:

    Steve, You touch a nerve for many who lived through a painful, divisive time in our nation’s history.
    Thanks for reminding us “Never forget those that gave their all, in service to our country”

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