Gone but not forgotten

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- As a child, I remember being regaled by my dad's stories of how he joined the Army at the age of 17 because he wanted to go to Vietnam.

I found it bespoke his character that while there were those dodging the draft, painting their toenails pink and running away to Canada, my father actually volunteered to go to the jungle. They didn't send him, but he settled for jumping out of planes instead.

My sister, Ginny, also holds a particular fascination for Vietnam, but for different reasons.

She has always been emotionally invested in ridding the world of social injustice. So in addition to the stories from my dad, she paid close attention to anything she could find on the 10-year war. A war that killed many young people who didn't want to go fight and die, but were forced into it. My sister often spoke of the injustice they faced when they returned home -- if they returned. The unfairness and cruel treatment of being harassed and spit upon when they returned home was something Ginny felt very passionately about. Many times they weren't even in one piece, either emotionally or physically, when they did return, she pointed out.

When I heard about an opportunity to volunteer for construction of the traveling Vietnam Wall in Sturgis, S.D., I of course, jumped at the chance to get involved. It was an opportunity to help honor the young men and women who were killed in Vietnam by building a replica of the wall that acknowledges their personal sacrifices.

I wasn't the only one who answered the proverbial call. There were about 15 other Airmen and one civilian from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., who came out to construct the replica.

There were even displays honoring fallen servicemembers from our current joint fight. But what caught my eye was a display light no other.

More than 1,100 flags waved in the hot August breeze as their accompanying dog tags glistened in the sun. Each flag and dog tag represented a servicemember who was killed during the last seven years.
I realized any one of those flags or dog tags could just as easily have had my name etched onto it or belonged to one of my fellow Airmen. I remember watching the Basic Military Training instructors pass out our badges of accomplishment; they were our shiny rewards for having made it this far through BMT. Although it was an honor to receive our official dog tags, I recall thinking as I looked around the room at the young men and women who held their tags up and carefully inspected their names, numbers, blood types and religious preferences, that these small rectangular pieces of metal we held in our hands were made with the sole intent of providing a way to identify our remains on the battlefield.

Some of the volunteers who were with me that day, did recognize a few of the names on the tags.

"It hit me personally seeing the names of people I knew," said Tech Sgt. Kory Lindsey, 28th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller.

Many of the people we honored were people most of us had never met, and yet, by virtue of having vicariously lived the same emotional experiences we could all probably say we know them intimately. As regular people part of the same organization, we share the same feelings, fears, hopes, dreams and for some of us, the same nightmares. Out of many, we become one.

"E Pluribus Unum."

I felt pride as I witnessed my fellow Airmen -- people from different religious, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds -- come together for a common cause. When I held that panel in my hands with the names of those who were killed, they were as alive and real to me as the warm, hard surface of the panel on my skin -- their hearts once beat as mine does now and my heart was saying "I know you, this is for you and for me."

Being in the military, it becomes clear unlike any other clarity achieved in life, that no matter who we thought we were before, we are all the same.