I went off to war as a person I thought I knew and knew well. But I returned a stranger—both to myself and to many of those around me. I sought and still seek to know what happened to me in that evolution but I realize I might never know.
I used the word “vain” to describe those attempts and vain they were and shall forever be. It is foolish to read the sterile, bloodless narratives of wars that cost us our blood and that of our enemies. For it is blood that triggers our memories, scarred our bodies, mark the boundaries of our personal histories, and haunt our dreams.
And it is that blood that brings us here today, that binds those with Purple Hearts and purple minds in solidarity to commemorate those who sacrificed yesterday and live on as the makers of history that others only know from books.
This stretch of riverfront became a special place for me in July of 1984 when we dedicated the Western New York Vietnam Memorial right over there. It has become even more special every time I’ve been asked to come back to this hallowed ground to remember out loud and in public. Where once the Vietnam monument was a solitary sentinel with our honored dead looking out over the water, it has since been joined by several other memorials paying homage to more than a century of warriors who fought and bled and died all over the globe. A short stroll down this walk of heroes, this trail of remembrance signifies the human cost of war, the real price of patriotism, and the fullness of sacrifice. For those etched on our granite and scorched in our consciousness the contract they signed with their blood called for what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” But we find fewer salutes to those who fought and bled and lived on scarred by the physical and psychological wounds of war.
There are few walls, few monuments, few recognitions for those who survived. But there is no recognition at all for all the other casualties of war—our loved ones who waited with the uncertainty and the fear and the honest-to-God horror of thinking about a loved one staring down danger every day of their separate lives.
I’ve often wondered what real truth and what utter reality we might discover if we skipped the war stories of veterans like ourselves and asked our loved ones to speak of the war of waiting and combat of remembrance.
A couple of years back, I was in the airport in Cincinnati and waiting for a ticket agent. A young guy—that’s kind of a misnomer these days because everyone seems like a young to me now—was standing alongside me. He was with a beautiful young blonde woman and the pair looked like the king and queen of a recent prom. He was tall and ripped and had muscles in his hair. His gray t-shirt said “ARMY” and I nodded a hello to him. As I did, I noticed his artificial leg. I told him of my service in the 1st Cavalry and we spoke amiably for a few minutes. But I noticed his wife never said a word, never acknowledged my presence and seemed to be staring at something no one else could see. To the grunts in the audience, you will recognize that description and the definition of the “thousand yard” stare that you would often see when a grunt had seen too much combat in too short a time. It was then that I realized the toll our current wars were taking on loved ones. Here was this beautiful young girl in the prime of her life. Her husband accepted the cost of his contract with his country but that probably wasn’t something she signed on for.
These are the people who are assigned spaces on the walls within us. They are the unrecognized and the indispensable. As we remember our own sacrifice today, it is well that we remember theirs as well and that we reserve for them special places on the wall within.
And if we are all of common conscience we might agree on a dedication for that wall. Mine would read: this wall is dedicated to all the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, and most of all dreams of the men and women who risked it all in war while you continued to lose them during and after combat.
So to all of you who have stood by your veterans we offer special thanks for your battle without glory and for your love beyond reward.
I can peer through the mists of my memory to the early days of my speaking and recall a bit of the terror I felt standing before those first audiences of strangers. I recall the doubt that I could say something meaningful to people I’d never met or spoken to. And I also recall how quickly those fears faded once I remembered going into combat with a new unit, with new guys. It is one of life’s greatest ironies that we spend lifetimes making friends only to ship off to war to create friendships with total strangers for whom you might one day risk your life and another day depend on that stranger. We clung together so savagely in that rarefied air. We shared everything, from our last sip of water to our lives. I am alive because of a friend such as that. I was cowering behind a bullet-swept anthill with a wrecked machine gun in my hands and a battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers in my face. I would have surely died a sad and lonely death that terrible day in that nameless place had it not been for a guy named John Holcomb. He ran across fifty meters to bring me another machine gun and took four bullets in the chest. His reward for that heroism was a posthumous Medal of Honor. Mine was the honor of writing testimony that formed the bulk of his award citation and to grow old and fat and bald, reveling in the joy of watching grand kids grow up.
Hardly a day in my life passes when I don’t recall the sacrifice that kept me on the planet.
Hardly a day goes by when I wonder if the life I’m living is enough to honor that sacrifice.
And while that’s part of my story, it’s also part of our story. Every combat vet here today has a story of sacrifice that ends in bloodshed, either their own or that of a buddy. And that’s also the thread that binds us all and brings us together to celebrate those who risked it all for a piece of purple and white ribbon and the profile of George Washington that is the Purple Heart.
Most people think the battlefield as the province of hate and fear and anger. When you’ve fought and you’ve bled and you’ve risked and you’ve survived, you recognize it as something entirely different. Hatred would hardly be enough to make a soldier leave a safe position to rescue a buddy. Fear would never make one share a last sip of water with a dying comrade. And anger never motivated a nurse to stand tall in a bloody operating room for half a day or longer to put blasted soldiers and Marines back together.
Only love can motivate that kind of heroism. Only love can trigger that kind of courage.
Only love can bind us in that kind of brotherhood. And that love is the essence of the Purple Heart.
I still recall my lieutenant pinning my first Purple Heart on me in April of 1968. He told me he was conflicted about giving me such an award because he didn’t want to celebrate one of his troopers getting hit. I didn’t understand him then for I got hit running to the aid of another wounded soldier and I did it a few more times after that with the same result.
For the rest of our lives, our scars will remind us of the pain we suffered in earning the Purple Heart. Let this monument forever remind us and our community of the love that led us to the privilege of shedding our blood for country and comrade.
Thank you for giving me yet another chance to remember that love.