More Than Just Names On A Wall

At last year's observance at the Wall, the memorial to those we lost during the Vietnam War, the following excerpt from a letter written on May 28, 1968 by Lt. Randall Planchon USMC was read: "There are only 89 people in M company mow. We should have about 200. We still have a couple of bodies out there we have not recovered. I just pray to God that we don't go back, but we must go back. My men can't take much more of this and I can't either. No longer can I lead these men to their death." Two weeks after he wrote this, he was killed in action.

The Vietnam War had an impact on all of us who lived through it. It was a conflict that defined the Baby Boomer generation, but it impacted our parents – parents like my neighbors who lost their son, Bobby Palenscar – and children born during that time who lost fathers they never knew or who were left behind in Vietnam when their father’s returned home.

The Wall is a unique memorial, unlike any other in Washington DC. Whenever I visit, I stop by Bobby’s name and remember the teenager who lived across the street. For my husband, Carl, the visits are more moving as he visits his friend, Peter Penfold, who was killed in the Tet offensive and whose death moved him to enlist in the Marine Corp.

Over the past three decades, the Wall has become a hallowed spot, a place of pilgrimage, homage and reconciliation – a place to remember, mourn and forgive. Remembrances are brought and left behind – letters, dog tags, college rings, a football helmet, a motorcycle, posters, sneakers, medals. Now, some of the 400,000 items left there over the years by visitors are being selected for display in the new Vietnam War education center planned for a site nearby. Jan C. Scruggs, whose Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund created the memorial claims that there is no sociological or anthropological precedent in the United States for such actions – leaving behind remembrances. Legend has it that the first object left was a Purple Heart medal, placed at the cornerstone of the Wall. As more items were left and park rangers began to realize their importance and the importance of the gestures and thus began the next tribute to this conflict – The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection.

As you kick off summer this Memorial Day, take a moment to remember those heroes who won’t been kicking back at barbeques and drinking beer. Pay homage to our fallen heroes, but also think what you can do for the men and women who are returning from today’s conflicts and are struggling. Help them get re-established in the job market.

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