A few years ago, the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall arrived in our town. At the time I was not able to attend. I recall being really upset about missing this event. Luckily the wall returned this past weekend, and I made sure to attend. I was not quite sure what to expect. In the end, it turned out my experience was far more personal than I expected.
When I was six or seven years old I went to Washington D.C. with my parents for vacation. I was told that I saw the original wall during that trip. Let’s face it; most individuals can’t recall events that occurred when they were six years old unless they are still a child. I am 30 and struggle to remember to take my medication twice a day. I really want to return to DC, but that trip is still a long time off. However, thanks to the Traveling Memorial Wall, I can see a replica of a DC landmark in my own hometown.
Through my work, I get to do a lot of neat things with Veterans. Obviously this blog is a part of that, and getting the opportunity to volunteer as a part of the wall festivities was an opportunity I could not pass up. I was actually able to be a part of the festivities twice, once during the opening ceremonies, and again on Sunday morning.
The opening ceremonies were simply amazing. The turnout was great, the Air Force Honor Guard put on an amazing display, and the ceremony was very touching. We handed out water to individuals attending the event. It was a hot day, but there were hundreds in attendance. I tend to be quite observant. In the audience, I saw several Veterans wearing hats that read “Vietnam.” It was great to see so many Vietnam Veterans gathered for the ceremony.
On Sunday I joined a group of coworkers at the event. Our goal was to help assist individuals in finding names on the wall. At the time it was raining. Not many people stopped by the display. One man, however, was there with his family members. As he walked up he stated that he “had 37 friends on that wall.” It was simply shocking to me. I was stunned by his words…so much so that I had no idea what to say. Luckily one of my coworkers was there with me and starting talking to the Veteran. There are thousands of names on the wall. I didn’t know any of them. My uncle served in Vietnam, but he is alive and well. For someone like me, it’s easy to look at the wall and be desensitized to it. Thousands of people gave their lives in that conflict, the Vets who survived came home to an unwelcoming country. For this man, I can’t even imagine what it was like to lose nearly 40 people and then come home to an ungrateful public.
Traffic at the wall was slow all morning. I wasn’t very helpful. As I got ready to leave, I took a look at another memorial in our park. It is set up in front of the area in which the Traveling Vietnam wall was standing. It’s dedicated to members of our local community who were killed in the more recent conflicts. I’ve never really looked at it before. I’m not sure why I haven’t look at it before. I guess it’s just not in a part of the park I frequent. When I read the names of the fallen, I came across one I recognized. A former classmate of mine, Pfc. Ernest Harold Sutphin, we called him Ernie, was killed while serving in Kuwait in 2004. I wouldn’t really say he and I were friends in the traditional sense, but we would talk on occasion. He was a year or two ahead of me in school. We didn’t hang out outside of the walls of Parkersburg High School, but I remember our interactions. He was very funny and had a distinct voice that I can actually recall to this day. After graduating, I remember running into my friend Allison in college one day. She had informed me of his death. I didn’t know that he was even serving at the time. I couldn’t quite put it in perspective at the time. Really, it was not until I befriended and cared about active-duty soldiers and Veterans in my own life that I could really understand the gravity of what happens when you lose someone in service. Honestly, I forgot that someone I had talked to, someone I had interacted with, someone I liked, was killed while serving. It was not until seeing his name on a memorial that he could understand the true importance of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall. It’s not about acknowledging someone’s death; it’s about celebrating their life.
Overall, I am so glad I got to experience so much this past weekend. I work with Veterans every day, but rarely do I get the opportunity to remember those who gave it all for our freedom. To say it was humbling experience wouldn’t be accurate. It was surprisingly refreshing.