© Jeff R. Clow

Something I wrote a few years back that I always reread - and recall - on Memorial Day:

"The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial (The Wall) transformed me from a tourist to a humbled, thankful citizen in a period of a very few minutes.

The 58,000 names inscribed - of the United States men and women who died in the Vietnam War - overwhelm a person very quickly. Panel after panel, name after name. Hispanic surnames, Native American surnames, and hundreds of names that reflect the diversity of our nation - and the diversity of the sacrifices that were made on our behalf.

But the tears started flowing as I walked back toward the Washington Monument along the East Wall and stopped short in my tracks.

I then really saw the Wall for the first time. I saw the men and women...the visitors at this moment.... reflected back as they peered at the names, and I realized at that instant why this memorial is so different from the dozens of others I've visited. It is not celebrating achievement, nor victory, nor triumph. It is recognizing the sacrifice and simultaneously telling us that those names inscribed are really reflective of all of us. Old and young, black and white, tall and short.

As I started looking at the scene through different eyes, I stopped and took in another moment that will live in my memory forever...

A vet was working at using pencil and paper to lift the names of departed comrades from the Wall.

It was windy and his paper kept billowing as he tried to work. Many of us watched in respectful silence. But none of us leaned forward to help him keep his paper affixed.

But then a gray haired man - obviously a veteran of an earlier conflict - stepped forward out of the crowd on wobbly legs and put his hand up to keep the paper still. The younger veteran seemed shocked that another hand was pressing the paper until he looked over and saw the stranger and instantaneously realized the bond they shared.

They worked in silence, and when the name was transcribed, the young veteran touched the older veteran on the shoulder and said "thanks". And the dozen or so of us present were weeping as we watched this moment unfold.

And that surely sums up why this memorial is the most visited site in Washington. Because of the power it evokes within each of our minds. Because those black panels reflect so powerfully as to who these people were.... and how they died in service to the nation...to us.... as we stand in front of this starkly beautiful, and starkly haunting piece of architectural genius.

No - I did not serve in Vietnam, and no - I did not have any relatives, friends or acquaintances who died in this heavily debated war. But I stood there crying aloud as I realized what these individuals had done for me...for my family....and for our country.

I cried for their sacrifice...I cried for their valor....I cried for their youth and their families. I cried for my children. And I cried for the shame that I felt that so many died for me so far away.

If history is to be retold through monuments and memorials, then I truly believe that the history of our country at war can be summed up by a visit to The Wall. Through your own eyes...as you peer at unknown names affixed on black granite...you'll see sacrifice like you've never seen it in a book or a movie. You'll see it reflected back at your mind....at your heart....and within the deep recesses of your soul.

You'll see it more clearly than you have ever thought you could see it. And you'll see it through eyes brimming with tears that will stream unapologetically down the front of your face. And you'll not be embarrassed to be seen crying, because you'll find so many others crying alongside you."

I hope you will remember today that freedom is not free, and that those of us in the United States owe our veterans - alive and dead - so much.

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