In Memory of Marine Cpl. Javier Figueroa, killed 1/28/68 in Quang Tri
Province, Republic of South Vietnam

In Memory of Marine LCpl. Clement Johnston, Jr., killed 4/28/66 in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Vietnam

By honoring the sacrifice of those who have, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, already “given the last full measure of their devotion,” we also honor all those who, like my young Marine nephew, are currently fighting in some hard, unfriendly place, half a world away.

A Few Additional Thoughts on This, the First “Summer” Holiday of the Year

The Vietnam War Memorial, "The Wall", Washington, D.C.

Today is “Memorial” Day. It is supposed to be a day of remembrance. And I like to think that there was a time, not that long ago, when most ordinary Americans understood and honored this day and its purpose. Now, for many, if not the majority of our fellow citizens, Memorial Day seems to be little more than an excuse for a three-day holiday weekend, or a backyard barbeque, or even for a “blow-out” electronics sale. I hate to admit it, but I understand how this change could happen: memories are tricky things, and they fade surprisingly quickly. I was recently brought to this sad truth, myself.

WWII U.S. Cemetery, Normandy, France, view of the graves from the memorial.

During the first week of April of this year, my wife talked me into visiting the touring reproduction of the Vietnam War Memorial: The Wall. She had already visited the real monument in Washington, but she knew that— despite the fact that I had served two and a half years in Vietnam — I had not; so she thought that it might be nice for us to finally visit the touring “Wall” display together. I agreed to make the trip, but under protest: I have to admit that I have always had mixed feelings about “war” memorials. Unlike a military cemetery or a former battlefield — I still get a lump in my throat when I see pictures of Arlington or of the American Cemeteries at Normandy or Lorraine, in France — most of these types of monuments have always struck me as being more like “guilty” afterthoughts than anything else. Statues or marble structures that actually say more about the “memorializers” than about the “memorialized.” None the less, I finally agreed to make the trip; so on a sunny, windy Saturday morning, we drove all the way out to Buckeye, Arizona to visit the touring reproduction of the “Wall.”

WWII U.S. Cemetery, Normandy, France, The Gardens of the Missing

I don’t know what I expected. But I can honestly say that no sudden, intense wave of emotion washed over me when I saw the monument. Nor do I think that my reaction would have been any different, had I been looking on the real thing for the first time. I had served in Vietnam from February 1966 to August of 1968, so over four decades separated the “old man” from the young soldier that had gone to Southeast Asia so many years before. Also, I was never a grunt. I spent my time in Vietnam either helping to intercept, analyze, or process intelligence gathered from enemy communications. My various jobs took me all over the country, but only rarely did I even have to carry my rifle or do any hard slogging. So, all things considered, I had it pretty good. So, the first unpleasant fact that I realized in Buckeye that day was that the young soldier of my dim past could almost have been someone else. But even that wasn’t the worst of it.

As I walked along, I found myself scanning the “Wall.” Finally, when I reached the area of the monument that covered the period of my own service — for those who have not seen it, the names on the Wall are organized by date — I was surprised to discover that my mind had gone almost completely blank. Despite having spent some thirty months in Southeast Asia, I suddenly discovered that, somewhere during the march of years, I had forgotten many, if not most, of my old comrades’ names. In a lot of cases, if I could remember a name, I couldn’t match it with a face, or vice versa. This effect was particularly pronounced when it came to the soldiers and marines that I had served with in I Corps (Quang Tri Province) near the DMZ, during my first year in Vietnam. But it spilled over into other situations and locations, as well. Guys I had had the odd beer with, or played poker with, or had met on R&R in Bangkok or Malaysia, or Taiwan. These were just regular Americans; not really so much friends, as the typical GIs that you bump into and get to know when you’re in a place long enough. This wasn’t to say that I had forgotten everyone, but only that I had forgotten far too many. And the most troubling thing of all was that I had somehow forgotten the names or the faces of those I knew who had been killed. Now, none of my closest friends had been killed or even wounded. Others that I knew, however, had not been so lucky, and as I walked along the mock-up of the “Wall,” I couldn’t help feeling that these others deserved better. And not just from me, but from everyone. I couldn’t shake the sense that, somehow, I had let these young men down. And this idea brings me, finally, to the dedication at the beginning of this piece.

WWII U.S. Cemetery, Lorraine, France - View of the memorial from the graves

In the end, I and the wonderful, helpful people who volunteer with the monument tour tried our best to identify at least a couple of individuals from a number of young men that I had known who had been killed in various operations from “Davy Crockett” to the “Tet” Offensive. It had suddenly become important to me, that I at least make the effort. The two young marines memorialized at the start of this essay — one forever 18 and the other 22, who died so long ago in Vietnam — may or may not be the men I remember, I will never be sure. But what I do know is that even if they are not, they deserve to be remembered on Memorial Day by someone, and I am proud for that someone to be me. And having finally visited the “Wall,” I also now know something else: I realize, at last, that if we who served with them do not make the effort to remember those who fell, then who will?

May you, my readers, and those you care about, all have an enjoyable and safe Memorial Day Holiday. And may those who wear our country’s uniform and who daily go into harm’s way, in dangerous, far-off places, also have a safe Memorial Day!


  • Thank you Joe for this heart felt piece about remembering the fallen members of our Armed Forces.
    As the mother of a young Marine, your nephew, now in a most dangerous position, I pray the people of this country will remember the true meaning of this day and take a moment to reflect upon the all the servicemen that have given thier lives and remember the thousands of young men and women currently fighting for our country.
    I hope everyone of us remembers to say "Thank you for your service" the next time we pass a person in uniform at the grocery store or gas station. Past and present, they all deserve our thanks.

  • Well said, and please tell him thank you for the rest of us, too. Be safe.

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