We See the Names

by Mike Johnson

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Moving Wall, a memorial, like the permanent one in Washington, D.C., that commemorates the U.S. soldiers who died in the Vietnam conflict. I went with my father and my grandmother. We made the trip because my uncle (my father’s younger brother) died in Vietnam in 1970, four years before I was born. My parents named me after him.

Even the details of the trip remain vivid in my memory: the typically sunny and hot Florida weather, the long drive, and the heavy sadness. A crowd of people came that day to the Wall and the mood was somber. Many touched the names of their loved ones with one hand, and clinched a tissue to their tear-stained face with the other. Parents openly wept for their dear sons whom the violence of war had snatched from them so many years before. Siblings, like my father, silently stared at the wall and must have wondered what life would have been like had the draft skipped their brothers. Even young people like me were there. I thought that some of them must have been viewing the names of fathers that died before they were old enough to remember. The pain was obvious and immense.

I went to an information booth and inquired about my uncle’s name. After typing something into a computer, a longhaired and tattooed veteran handed me a computer printout and directions to my uncle’s place on the wall. I searched for it on the black multi-columned panels crowded with 58 thousand names. I did not expect the surge of emotion that overwhelmed me upon finding his name. I began to weep with the countless around me: a sea of grief for those long ago fallen. That day I cried for an uncle I had never known, and for fifty-eight thousand uncles and fathers and husbands and sons and friends – all snatched from this earth and from these around me who loved them so dearly.

Something happened to me that day when I saw those names. It was not mere sadness. It was the deep, numbing knowledge that I could only see the names: story-less names that do not tell of the agony of parents hearing the dreaded news that their teenage child was gone forever. We only see names, not the young wives who prayed night and day that their husbands would come home, only to receive a heart-crushing government letter in the end. We do not see the best friend left with only memories; the fiancé whose wedding would never be, the child raised only by his mother. We see names.

I remember well the sleepless night that followed my visit to The Wall. I thought long about my uncle. I had read newspaper clippings about him, and his letters to my dad. I had visited his grave countless times. However, after seeing his name that day, I have never thought of him the same. That experience showed me that that name represents a man who gave his life for the freedom that I enjoy and often take for granted. As unworthy as I am, I bear his name proudly.

I also thought that night about my sweet grandmother; a woman as far from politics, guns, and the violence of war as any could be. Even so, she has fought a great battle trying to fill the void left by losing her 19-year-old boy in a war that few could understand. God has blessed her with several children, many, many grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Yet, none of us, as much as she loves us, could ever fill the void created in 1970 in the jungles of South East Asia.

Then I thought of my father. Until that night, I had never realized what he lost for his country. I knew that he gave two years of his life to fight in Vietnam. I knew that he gave 21 years of service to the US Armed Forces. That night, I considered what he lost. He lost his little brother.

People talk and write much about the war in Vietnam. Before the reasons and the politics, may we remember the names of the men who fought and died for this nation. They were young, but they were courageous. By sacrificing their lives so that others could live without tyranny and bondage, they earned the right to be called patriots.

I think that everyone who is able should visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. at least once. It is important that we remember and honor those names. May we never forget that the names represent the tens of thousands of Americans who died and the brave blood of men, patriots, of this great nation that was spilled on Vietnamese soil. May we never forget the names.

Oh for the fallen, we weep,
Never will we forget,
Oh for the fallen, we weep,
Forever will we regret,

Oh for the fallen, we sing,
Our joy in their memory,
Oh for the fallen, we sing,
If only their names we see.

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