Today is one of my favorite holidays: First Thanksgiving, AKAVeterans' Day. To mark the occasion, I am reposting an essay pegged to Vietnam, but that conveys to all our veterans a single essence: A heartfelt message of thanks. Twenty-five-plus years ago, I ran a weekly newspaper in Dixon, California. One day, some Vietnam veterans tumbled into my office, urging me to write an “enormously important” story about a new memorial to American troops who died in Southeast Asia.
The story was indeed important.
But the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, slated for Washington, D.C., was a national story. It had no place on the pages of California’s weekly Dixon Tribune newspaper.
I told the men I couldn't help them. I expected an argument. Instead, the men turned away. Something in their manner — a sad acquiescence, so easily accepting of rejection — triggered an old memory. My father, a Korean War combat veteran, routinely went into paroxysms of rage over America’s inexcusable mistreatment of Vietnam veterans. Once, my father and I were riding our horses when we encountered some “peace” bullies picking on a soldier in uniform. Incensed, I galloped my horse directly into the protesters. Afterward, I was grounded; but my father granted me custody of his treasured Combat Infantryman’s Badge.The memory unleashed that old instinct, to stand up for the soldiers. I called to the men leaving my office. “Wait!” I said.
“I’ll write about you, and what the memorial means to you.”
It soon became clear that the unbuilt memorial already radiated power, inspiring my vets to express deep reservoirs of grief, love and pride.
My veterans’ excitement turned to angst. Some hated that the memorial — nicknamed The Wall —was set into the Earth. They were upset that the designer, Maya Lin, was an Asian woman. My gang of ex-soldiers turned against the Wall. After the memorial opened just after Veterans Day 1982, though, my vets were overcome with curiosity. Was the Wall a good thing, or a bad thing? Did it insult the vets, or honor them? None wanted to resolve those questions with a visit to Washington. The emotional risk was too great. Instead, they asked if I would examine the Wall on their behalf.
They bought me a plane ticket. They tasked me with placing white roses before the panels containing the names of their dead comrades.
I complied eagerly. I wanted to see this Wall, myself. But I was not prepared for what happened in Washington. I had trouble finding the site. I wandered the Mall at length, toting my roses and growing steadily grumpier. I was about to give up when I nearly fell into a gorge that turned out to be the memorial. It was heartbreakingly beautiful. I was drawn in, mesmerized at seeing the real names of real soldiers who died while fighting for our country. Methodically, I began to deposit the roses.
I noticed a man standing beside me, entranced as if in prayer. On impulse, I asked if he were a Vietnam veteran. Defensively, he nodded yes. I blurted, “Thank you for serving.” He seemed to hold his breath. Then he lunged forward and hugged me. He stood sobbing in the arms of a stranger. I, too, began to cry, in gratitude for this man’s sacrifice, and from grief that an entire generation of our fine soldiers had been made to feel so thoroughly unappreciated. Back at home, I told my vets: “You have to see it.” Eventually, most of them did.When the last surviving veteran from the Vietnam War has died, the Wall — which has become a cultural icon — will remain standing. Future generations will visit, and will be well served by the underlying message: We as a nation honor, love and give thanks to all our service members. No matter the war; no matter the posting; no matter if they faced conflict abroad or at home; or encountered enemies foreign or domestic. We owe them our thanks.