"My brother's name is on the wall," she added. The family doctor in me knew that she wanted to say more. "What happened to him?" "He was killed in 1965 in a big battle with a lot of helicopters and artillery, but his unit was surrounded. " "Was that the battle in the Ia Drang Valley, the one made into a film with Mel Gibson?" She nodded. "That was called a victory, but with devastating losses, only pulled out by using jets and napalm," I added. I thought of the song, "Mansions of the Lord", sung by the West Point Glee Club at the end of the movie and again by 160 of us in the West Point Glee Club Alumni Concert in 2007. Memories bounced around my brain as she and I discussed her brother and Vietnam.
I remembered serving on funeral details in Tennessee when I was a second lieutenant stationed at Fort Campbell, KY. We related to the next of kin, played taps, folded the flag for the spouse or next of kin and traveled back to Ft. Campbell. Most of the funerals were for older veterans, but two of them were for young men killed in Vietnam. Those ceremonies were heavy with grief and tears. Mothers were shaking, fathers and brothers felt empty. At the cemetery, it was heavier until the playing of "Taps" and the presentation of the flag to the relatives. They held the flag tightly, like it replaced one of the painful memories. People pulled together at the church or family home for the gathering, always with food, after the funeral service. Survivors turned off part of the grief with ritual, support and prayer.
Soon after Ft. Campbell, I was a student in the Army's Rotary Wing Aviator school in Mineral Wells, Texas when my roommate (trailer- mate, actually), Jack Gerke and I were informed that one of our company-mates (E-4) at West Point had died in Vietnam. "Would we be pallbearers?" We were off to Bunkie, Louisiana to meet the family of Lieutenant Denny Layton Johnson and represent our West Point class at his funeral. Jack and I both already were headed to Vietnam as soon as flight school was over. It was a very sad experience to hear about Denny getting killed in an ambush a couple months after his arrival in the non-declared war zone. It was heartening, though, to hear the childhood and high school stories from his parents and brother. His relatives were wonderful people. Gracious, thankful Christians full of grief, but kind enough to welcome us and share.
I reflected later on my "inadequate" grief for Denny years later while looking at his name on the Vietnam Wall, realizing how my West Point training had me focused on mission accomplishment in a way that dropped grief skills way down the priority list. Actually I don't think grief made the list. One couldn't be looking back in combat. It was all forward until it was over. The Wall doesn't let grief hide, though. It confronts you with your denial and death's reality in a humble way. Each time I go to see the Vietnam Memorial, I realize more. It is a patient teacher. What a life Denny Johnson missed. He didn't see his kids play little league baseball or graduate from high school. He didn't even have a chance to get married. Every year, I feel more meaning to his loss. I now have grandchildren, a continuous message of love and a reminder of what others missed.
Twenty names on the Vietnam Wall are members of West Point's class of 1968, including Denny Layton Johnson. "No task too great for '68" is our class motto. Every year, class members gather at the wall for a ceremony honoring those who have died, especially those who were lost as a result of the Vietnam War. West Point loses graduates in every war. West Pointers study war, but we love peace. We don't want anyone to die in war. We don't want anyone to experience death in combat or the loss of a loved one in combat. We were trained to keep moving to accomplish our mission. The Wall now silently tells us of another mission. Stop and grieve. Appreciate and honor the fallen comrade. Appreciate yourself, too.
" Thank you for your service."