On a crisp Fall day in Washington D.C. I made my way from the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial through the construction barriers surrounding the reflecting pool to the walkway approach to The Wall. A feeling of utter dread came over me as I approached the sidewalk intersection by the bronze of The Three Servicemen. I found I could go no further. In solitude I took a seat on the bench, covered my eyes with my handkerchief, and with bowed head and ball cap shielding my self-conscious grief I sat and wept.
Though there were things to do and places to go, it seemed as though I was anchored to that spot. Time seemed to stop and the pain continued to tick off the minutes as tourists walked by not seeing, not hearing, wrapped in their own world. I may have stayed there much longer were it not for a man, a fellow veteran most likely, who took the seat beside me. He didn’t say much, no soaring rhetoric, no words of special depth or reason. He just gently put his hand on my shoulder and told me to take all the time I needed he would stay until I could go on.
I think back to that day often and ask myself why I could not go down to The Wall. It was not a single event that had brought on that reaction, not the memories of years past. It was not the faces I can still see or the sounds that accompanied their passing through my life. The mind is a terrible and wonderful thing. It records everything and only plays back the highlight reel. Reflection, what some call meditation and others call prayer, sometimes allows you to see the picture formed when all the dots are finally connected. That day, the dots connected and my mind saw what my conscious could not. Today while reading an article by Captain Donald M. Bishop entitled “The Press and the TET Offensive” it all seemed to click.
What had overwhelmed me that day was not the war, the memories of the war, or the magnitude of the loss. It was a combination of many factors. I was in D.C. filming an Honor Flight documentary honoring WW II Veterans. I was doing something that brought be great personal satisfaction in a town that at one point in my life had given me immense pride. It seemed to me that there was truly something great about a nation that could honor the struggle for freedom whether that struggle was popular or unpopular. These thoughts were in my head as I crossed in front of the gaze of Lincoln from his seat in his memorial. They were palpable as I looked past the World War II Memorial to the Washington Monument.
I remember the instant that the mood changed. As my lens focused beyond the Washington Monument and upon the Capital Dome I recognized that I no longer felt proud of this city. I was embarrassed that under that dome sat men and women who first thought of themselves before they thought of their nation. It made me sad to think that before the good of the people the politicians thought of the good of their campaigns. Like a cold stone in my stomach it was richly clear that ideologies now pulled the nation apart rather than the challenge of melding those ideologies for the common good drew us together.
And on that day as I walked toward a wall that commemorated the human souls that had been sacrificed in the name of that freedom I was broken by the magnitude of my thoughts. Whether for honor or pay, duty or bread, enlisted or drafted they did not shirk. They stood and they died because they were called. They may not have agreed on the cause or the mission or the method, but they were called and they had the will and the fortitude to answer. And with that, I could not face them as a living member of a society that now places a higher value on ourselves. I could not, in this town where people sought personal favor over recognition of responsibility, face the names of those who acted upon that responsibility.
And so I sat; and I wept; for myself; for my country; for what we have lost; and for the lives that will be lost to regain it. It is clear to me that it is too precious to lose forever. The human spirit will not abide such a thing. Whether it is here or there people like those whose names are on that wall that will demand it, strive for it, and some will die for it. I regret that I have lived to see what we have become. I hope I can live to see what we can be.