28E, Row 42: Honoring our veterans
Twenty years ago, a controversial monument was dedicated to honor the men and women who lost their lives fighting the futile war in Vietnam.
I remember the first time I encountered the haunting beauty of the Vietnam Memorial.
It was during that first year after its dedication when people were still not sure if the dramatic and descending angle of black marble was a fitting tribute to the courage of the 58,229 Americans who were killed in action.
As I approached the monument on a bright but cold fall day, I wondered what impression this tribute in stone would have on me.
Four of my high-school classmates have their names engraved on that stark tablet. One of them was a very close friend. We had spent most of our turbulent teenage years together, Bill and I. Together we suffered through church services and painfully boring confirmation classes. We partied through high school and taught each other how to inhale through our noses and drink whiskey without tasting it.
We went off to the same college and struggled to stay off academic probation. At the start of our sophomore year Bill decided to back out of school and into the United States Army. By the next November he was dead.
There are huge books, like morbid telephone directories, at each end of the monument, and in them you will find the name of your son or husband or brother or friend. It lists when they were born, where they called home and when they died.
Silently, and I mean a kind of silence that I have never experienced in the cathedrals of Europe, people gather around these Books of the Dead and find the appropriate page. I found mine. “William Howard Jett,” it read, and I jotted down the information that followed and the number indicated where on this massive black rock his name could be found – 28E, Row 42.
All of us have our times of profound sorrow, moments that overwhelm us with the darkness that seems only a breath away from consuming us. These are moments that can sometimes come upon us unawares. The smell of fresh-baked cookies evokes memories of a mother gone now but once welcoming us in from the outside with smiles and sweets.
Perhaps it is a place. The ocean or these beautiful mountains remind us anew of the sadness we feel over the friends that time has taken. It happens to all of us, and it happened to me standing in front of 28E, Row 42.
Most of you know the wall grows higher as you move toward the center. Actually the sidewalk sinks lower as the names fill the space before you. Standing at the apex, looking east then looking west, you watch as the walls just fade into nothingness. There is no pronounced statement of victory in this tribute, but neither is there shame. There are just two walls that quietly disappear, and you are left with a profound sense of awe and a plethora of contradictory feelings.
It appears that soon we will be engaged in another attempt at “regime change.” There is no question in my mind that Saddam Hussein is a despot and demagogue who oppresses the people of Iraq and threatens the stability of the world. But for America to act unilaterally, or even with the help of Great Britain, and conduct a sustained war as we did in Vietnam will surely prove as futile.
This Veterans Day, I will honor those brave men and women who have served and continue to serve America by remembering that day nearly 20 years ago when I stood before 28E, Row 42 and wept for my friend Bill and the foolish war that killed him.
Columnist Rich Mayfield writes in this space on Saturdays.
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