This past weekend, little ole Savannah, Tennessee played host to a rather special guest, The Moving Wall. For those of you to whom that name is unfamiliar, it’s a half sized replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.—a replica that’s been traveling across the nation for over 30 years. The powers that be planted it in the Tennessee Street Park, just blocks away from the funeral home, and saw to it that the park remained open around the clock for as long as The Wall was there.
It certainly proved to be a draw. During the day you rarely ever saw a vacant parking place and the park was overflowing with families and folks who came to see something they might otherwise never be able to view. After all, it’s far easier to see a replica in Savannah than the real thing in Washington. At least it is if you live in Hardin County.
I wanted to go, but since I’m an aspiring hermit, I wanted to go when very few other people were there. Besides, it’s hard to photograph something when it’s hiding behind a flock of folks. So I waited. I waited until 10:00 on Saturday night, then, with trusty camera slung over my shoulder, I walked through the park gates and turned left.
The Wall had been installed just a few yards from the main entrance, but leading up to The Wall were banners—five of them, to be exact—that pictured our Hardin Countians who lost their lives during that conflict. Three of them were solemnly posed for the camera, proudly wearing their dress uniforms and looking as though the weight of the world was on their shoulders. One, however, was dressed in his fatigues and grinning from ear to ear. Another was only a grainy shot from combat—a picture that only his family and closest friends would ever have recognized. Their names and dates of birth and death—and their location on The Wall—were included.
I recognized the first name, not because I knew him but because I know his son. We were in band together in high school; I was a woodwind and he a percussionist. Somewhere along the way I had learned of his father’s death, something that was foreign to me for, even though I was raised in a funeral service family, the people we buried did not die in wars. Accidents? Yes. Natural causes? Yes. By their own hand? Sadly, yes. But not wars.
He died in combat in 1966—over 51 years ago—but when the opening day arrived, his family was there. Their pictures were all on Facebook showing them gathered around his banner and laying a wreath beneath his name on Panel 4E, Line 103. I walked to that panel and found him. Then I backed away and took in the full extent of the display. Over 59,000 names were there. Over 59,000 lives that were lost in a war very few people understood but that so many people condemned. And sadly enough, when the survivors returned, they were not accorded the honor and respect their sacrifices demanded. It took years before we as a country began to appreciate the horrors they endured—and began to acknowledge the grief and loss suffered by the families whose loved ones came home in body bags.
It was hard to stand there and contemplate the loss of life that spanned two decades. That war started before I was born and officially ended one year after I graduated from high school. As with any war there were those who rejoiced when their son or daughter, husband or wife, brother or sister, came back to them safely . . . and there were those whose lives were never the same because their family was broken by Death. As I stood there, reading line after line after line, I came to realize just how appropriately named this monument really was.
There is no way to write about war without feeling the despair it brings . . . and for that I apologize. But life and death are almost always painful when they collide, especially in times of war, and sometimes we need to feel that so we can better serve those who have been directly affected. I say that as an introduction to the following quote, a quote I found while researching the Vietnam era for this post. It can be seen on a website called thewall-usa.com and comes from someone who viewed, first-hand, the destructive nature of war, addressed to those who suffered with him.
“If you are able, save for them a place inside of you and save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go. Be not ashamed to say you loved them, though you may or may not have always. Take what they have taught with their dying and keep it with your own. And in that time when men decide and feel safe to call the war insane, take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind.” ~ Major Michael Davis O’Donnell, January 1, 1970 while stationed in Dak To, Vietnam
Major O’Donnell is listed as killed in action on February 7, 1978. He died in a helicopter crash in Cambodia at the age of 32. His body was never recovered.
To all those who have ever served and were fortunate enough to survive—but especially to those gentle heroes left behind—thank you.