Today’s Memorial Day essay is, with only a few minor changes, a repeat of an earlier post that I first published on "Map and Counters" in 2009. I keep bringing it back each year because it conveys, at least insofar as my meager gifts allow, the essence of my thinking on the topic of Memorial Day; moreover, although I do occassionally revisit this topic, I have thus far found nothing in its core message that I would change. At the time I first wrote this essay, I had only recently experienced something of a personal epiphany: one that had imbued me with a powerful urge to honor those who, for one reason or another, are all too often passed over by their countrymen in favor either of better-known military leaders or more famous heroes. Nothing that has happened since I first wrote this post has done anything to change my mind. On the contrary, as time has gone by, I have become more and more convinced that Memorial Day shouldn’t mainly be about celebrating those who are or were famous, whether gallant heroes or successful generals — their memories will almost always be preserved somewhere, if only in a fading copy of an old history book; instead, I believe that what this day should really be about is honoring the countless ordinary men and women who — although largely uncommemorated except by cemetery headstones — have served in our armed forces over the centuries and who, when duty required it, willingly relinquished the most precious thing that they possessed: their own lives. Thus, just as it has done in years past, this Memorial Day essay honors (however modestly) two U.S. Marines who fell as a result of enemy action a long time ago in Vietnam; just as importantly, however, it is also a salute to all of those who, through the ages, have made the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country: from the first violent birth pangs of the new American Republic, to the faraway battlefields of the present day. May their sacrifices never be forgotten.

Vietnam War Memorial Wall, Washington, D.C.
In Memory of Marine Cpl. Javier Figueroa, killed in action 1/28/68 in Quang Tri Province, Republic of South Vietnam

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

When we honor the memory of those who have, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, already “given the last full measure of their devotion,” let us also take a moment to think about all of those men and women who serve overseas as a bulwark against the medieval fanatics that — in spite of the fact that their original leaders are now mainly dead or in captivity — still plot attacks against the American homeland from half a world away.

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

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 original purpose. Now, for many, if not the majority of my fellow citizens, I fear that Memorial Day has become 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 fragile things, and they fade far too quickly. I was unexpectedly reminded of this sad truth, myself, only a few years ago.

During the first week of April a little over three years ago, my wife talked me into visiting the touring reproduction of the Vietnam War Memorial: The "Wall". She, herself, had already visited the real monument in Washington, DC, 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 the site of a former battlefield — I still get a lump in my throat when I see pictures of Arlington or of one 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. Too often the statues or marble structures that are erected, usually long after the events that they commemorate, actually seem to say more about their well-intentioned builders than they do about those being memorialized. Nonetheless, because I still value my wife’s good opinion of me, I finally agreed to make the trip; so, on a sunny, windy Saturday morning in 2009, the two of us drove all the way out to Buckeye, Arizona, to pay a visit to the touring facsimile of the “Wall”.

U.S. WWII Cemetery, Normandy, France.
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 reproduction of the monument. Nor do I think that my reaction would have been any different, had I been looking upon 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” in Buckeye from the young soldier that had gone to Southeast Asia so many years before. Also, I was never a grunt. I spent most of my time in Vietnam either helping to intercept and analyze, or, alternatively, to process intelligence gathered from enemy communications. In the course of my time in the Republic of Vietnam, my various jobs took me all over that war-ravaged country, but only rarely did I have to carry a loaded weapon or do any hard slogging. In short, all things considered, I had it pretty good. Of course, that was then, and this is now. The first truly disconcerting fact that I discovered as I walked along the "Vietnam Wall" that day was that the young soldier of my dim past — in spite of a cloud of memories from my war years — could almost have been someone else. But, unexpected as that sensation was, it really wasn’t the most disturbing thing about my visit to Buckeye that day.

Arlington National Cemetery
As I walked along with my wife of over thirty years beside me, 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 stunned to discover that my mind had gone almost completely blank. In spite of having spent some thirty months in Southeast Asia, I suddenly discovered that, somewhere in the course of the march of the intervening 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.

U.S. WWII Cemetery, Lorraine, Normandy, France.
The young men that I had had the odd beer with, or played poker with, or had met on R&R in Bangkok, Malaysia, or Taiwan had all, to varying degrees, disappeared into the mists of a half-remembered, almost dream-like past. These men had just been 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, by the way, to say that I had forgotten everyone, but only that I had forgotten far too many that I had every reason to remember. The most troubling thing of all, however, was that I had somehow forgotten the names or the faces of those I knew who had been killed. Now, it is important to note that — in the time I served in Vietnam — none of my closest friends had been killed or even seriously wounded. Others that I knew, however, had not been so lucky, and as I walked along the facsimile of the “Wall”, I couldn’t help feeling that these others deserved better. And not just from me, but from the rest of their countrymen, as well. I couldn’t shake the guilty feeling that, somehow and without meaning to, I had let these young men down. And this idea brings me, finally, to the dedication at the beginning of this piece.

Gettysburg National Cemetery, Pennsylvania
If I had not really had a purpose (other than pleasing my wife) when I first set out to visit the "Wall", one slowly took shape in my mind as I and the other visitors slowly walked beside those seemingly countless rows of names. It gradually dawned on me that day in Buckeye that it was time for me, personally, to reach back into the past and to retrieve at least a few of the memories that I had somehow allowed to slip away. Four decades was a long time and much had happened; but it was also, I reminded myself, nothing compared to eternity.

In the end, I and the wonderful, helpful people who volunteer with the monument tour all 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. Guilt is a powerful rebuke, and it had suddenly become strangely important to me that I at least make a serious effort to do this. Thus, melancholy though my and my helpers' task may, looking back, now appear to an outsider, it nonetheless imbued my spur-of-the-moment project and its outcome with an emotional intensity that I have rarely felt before or since. And, more importantly, my and the "Wall" volunteers' labors were not completely fruitless.

The two young marines memorialized at the start of this essay — one forever 18 and the other 22, who died so many years ago in Vietnam — may or may not be the men I knew when I was a young soldier, I will never be truly sure. But what I do know is that even if they are not, they still deserve to be honored on Memorial Day by someone, and I am proud for that someone to be me. It took a long time for me, personally, but having finally visited the “Wall,” I also now know something else: I realize, at last, that if we who served with those whose names are inscribed on that gleaming black marble do not make the conscious (and sometimes painful) effort to remember those who fell in Vietnam so long ago, then who among us 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!


  • Your gifts are by no means meager and this is just a stunning piece of writing.To produce a piece so simple and honest is the most difficult type of writing to pull off. I think (and hope) we are turning a corner in regards to this day:More people each year are being reminded as to just how profound a day this really is.

  • Greetings Brian:

    Thank you for your kind words; they are much appreciated.

    May you and yours enjoy a safe and happy Memorial Day.

    Best Regards, Joe

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