The wounds of war endure long after the battle ends. For family and friends, the loss of a loved one in service to the nation leaves an enduring void. Those who have worn the uniform carry with them memories of fallen comrades, and of their own experiences.
Those of us without a direct connection to the military reflect on what others have lost on certain special occasions, and when hearing the stories of those affected. But the true meaning of that sacrifice – and the need to ensure those who served are cared for when returning home – is too often lost in the hectic pace of our own day-to-day lives.
Sometimes, a story, event or gathering can break through, serving as a chance to heal and to reinforce the commitment we owe to veterans and their families. Locally, the recent visit from the American Veteran Traveling Tribute and the Traveling Wall – an 80-percent scale replica of the iconic Vietnam Memorial in the nation’s capital – served such a purpose.
The wall and its replica bear the names of 209 Rhode Islanders who died in Vietnam, from Warwick, Cranston, Johnston and all across the Ocean State. The Traveling Wall was hosted by Operation Stand Down, which provides assistance to homeless veterans.
The Vietnam Memorial is deeply moving, a stark and somber tribute to the thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice during one of the nation’s longest and most divisive conflicts.
Most are well aware of the shameful manner in which many Vietnam veterans were treated upon their arrival back in the United States. It may not be as well known just what the war’s toll was, and how young those who fought it were. Francis X. Flaherty, a Rhode Island Supreme Court justice and the keynote speaker during ceremonies at the Traveling Wall, noted that the average age of American service members in Vietnam was just 19-1/2 – years younger than during the Civil War or World War II.
Vietnam holds a defining role in our history, and its impact continues to be felt in ways we do not necessarily perceive.
The contempt many showed for members of the military has, thankfully, largely faded, although the recent scandal involving medical services for veterans across the country shows that more vigilance is needed to ensure they are properly honored and cared for.
The social divides of the Vietnam era, too, are far less obvious today, although the same fault lines can be seen in the response to our more recent military ventures. For many young people today, Vietnam is as distant as Korea or World War II seemed to previous generations.
That’s what makes the Traveling Wall’s visit so special, and so important. For those unable to visit the monument in Washington, D.C., a chance to see the thousands of names is a sobering experience. For those still bearing the war’s wounds, it provided an opportunity to remember loved ones and hopefully find some further degree of closure.
For the rest of us, it serves as another reminder of how much sacrifice has gone into preserving the peace and prosperity we enjoy – and how much work remains to truly honor those who have given their all.