Panel 23W, Line 103. That is where you will find my old friend Ralph Terry Lomen. Terry and I were not close, we were friends, classmates and teammates (track) in junior high and High school. Terry was popular, good looking, athletic. He was smooth but not stuck up, he was easy to like and people liked being around him. He was a little younger than me, he would have been 61 years old in June, but he will always remain just a little over 21. Terry was killed in Viet Nam on June 25, 1969, just a couple years out of high school, just a few days after his 21st birthday.
I have occasion to visit Washington DC from time to time and whenever I do, I always make time to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I check out the other memorials in DC as well. It’s interesting to see the statues of the generals on horseback, the soldiers and presidents. The Vietnam Memorial is different, partly because it is the war of my generation and also partly because that war was different.
The first time I visited I was confused. The names on the wall are not organized alphabetically, or by service or rank. At first it seems there is no organization at all which actually fits my perception of the whole dammed war. I’m sure I was like many first time visitors, emotionally full to the brim and then confounded by the lack of any obvious system. It’s not a situation where you want to talk with strangers or get instructions. The docent who helped me did so with a swift grace and dignity born of lots of experience. After all, this is like visiting a grave site, much different that staring up at a general on horseback inside a gushing fountain.
If you learn a little more about the wall you learn that the names are organized essentially in chronological order. The order in which these men and women died. When I looked up Terry’s name on the Virtual Wall I figured out that June 7th 1969 was a pretty bad day. I counted 74 names adjacent to Terry’s who died on that day alone. I’m sure compared to other days and other wars, 74 or 75 ‘casualties’ is no record. But take a moment to list the names of family, friends, loved ones, acquaintances, people you know. You quickly figure out that 75 fewer people could make a big hole in your facebook friends list. Each of the 58,000 plus names on that wall made a terrible, aching hole in someone’s life. What an incredible waste.
Up to that time, the Vietnam War had been one of the longest and most controversial wars in US history. When it was conceived, one of the goals of the memorial fund was to avoid commentary on the war itself. When the selected design was revealed however, ‘the wall’ was deemed so controversial that major proponents withdrew their support; the secretary of the interior refused at first to issue a building permit, and additions and amendments to the site were approved to make the black granite wall a little more acceptable. Controversial form start to finish. The stark, black wall rising from and receding into the earth was just too different. But it stuck, a different kind of memorial for a different kind of war.
I’m 61 years old I’ve got four great kids (adults now) and 4 fantastic grand children. Terry never had a wife, or kids, or grand kids. We’ll never know what great things Terry might have gone on to do, he’ll never have a face book page or a portrait hanging in some great corporate or government hall. Nor will the 58,000+ others who died in that war.
I was both sad and angered at the recent announcement that the war in Afghanistan has now gone on longer than the Vietnam War. The parallels are striking, and disgusting. And so absurdly apparent that I can’t believe people in places of power have let this incredible waste play out so recently on the heels of one of the supreme wastes of my time. Look at Vietnam now; look at the countries surrounding it. At the time we were bamboozled by ‘the domino theory’ the bogeymen were out there and they were going to get us if we didn’t draw a line in the sand. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Some 40 years later, I do not feel much of a threat lurking in Southeast Asia.
In our more recent follies, we heard that there were weapons of mass destruction, (weapons of mass deception more likely) and that we needed to wipe out the ‘axis of evil’ since ‘they’ (you know, they from the planet them, those evil bogeymen) are dedicated to destroying us. What will we be saying about this ridiculous war in another 40 years? I won’t be here then, but those of you who will should stop, today, and give this a little thought. When will the Iraq/Afghanistan memorial be built? First you have to end the war before you can cover over its absolute waste with a ’memorial’. So think about that. When will this current line in the sand be washed away by the winds of history?
The controversy surrounding the war in Vietnam is forgotten. Now the wall receives millions of visitors every year, people come and look and are subdued when they see the listing of over 58,000 names. If you make an effort you will find my friend Terry Lomen on panel 23W, row 103. A name frozen in time, a great guy and a terrible waste, forever 21 years old.