Mark Simon

By the sheerest of coincidences, I happened to be in Washington, D.C., on the day 39 years ago when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was formally dedicated. It proved to be one of the most meaningful experiences of my reporting life.

My wife and I were passing through Washington, pausing for a couple of days on our way to a business meeting of hers in New York City.

We were oblivious to the fact that it also was Veterans Day. We were the Vietnam generation and the war dominated our lives for much of our late teens and early 20s. I certainly did not want to fight anyone, in Vietnam or anywhere else, and the draft loomed large in my daily life. Until an odd day when someone pulled some pingpong balls out of a basket in Washington, and I got a high draft number — 278. An issue with which I had wrestled for years disappeared in an instant. It still strikes me as one of the strangest moments in my life.

So, we were not veterans, not soldiers and not all that interested in the military.

Then, almost by accident, I ran into about 30 vets from the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, which was doing groundbreaking work in the area of post-traumatic stress disorder. As part of their therapy, they had been formed into a chorus. They were going to be on a float in the Veterans Day parade that would precede the formal dedication. They had an honored spot — the last float in the parade.

I spent time talking to them, hearing their stories and, in many cases, witnessing the raw emotion they were feeling on that day. When the parade was over, they assembled on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and sang, “America the Beautiful.” It was every bit as moving as you can imagine.

As an aside, later that same day, my wife and I had a quick lunch at a local deli. There, at one table, were four men wearing the Medal of Honor. I stared. They nodded. If you have never done so, go online and read the citations associated with the Medal of Honor.

During the day, I had befriended a man who had been a captain in an armored unit in Vietnam. His unit was overrun and five of them, including the captain, had jumped out of their vehicles and were running for cover. One by one, they were shot, leaving the captain, also wounded, to drag them to safety. Four of them died. The captain was given multiple medals.

He told me this story as were walking toward the wall, a dark and swirling array of names, listed in chronological order based on the date these servicemen were killed. When we got there, he found the names of the four men from his unit, listed in order. He began sobbing.

Some years later, a friend of mine, the legendary B.T. Collins, led an effort to build a California Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is located in a park adjacent to the state Capitol in Sacramento. There, the names are listed by hometown. With B.T.’s support, I wrote about several Peninsula men who had died in Vietnam.

One of my interviews was with a woman in East Palo Alto, the mother of twin boys. One had stayed home and one had been killed in Vietnam. She said that when the front door opens, she still expects to see her son come in. Just then, the front door opened and her surviving twin son walked through the door. Both of us had to pause for several moments.

It is the privilege of journalism to have these moments. You hope to come away from them with something more than notes in a notepad.

Those who fought in Vietnam did so for different reasons. For some, there were no other prospects. In the days of the draft, some just let it happen.

Many went for the finest of reasons — out of duty, out of love of country, out of a desire to serve. And they fought and died, as soldiers always do, for their brothers in arms.

And this is what stays with me. It is possible to oppose a war — there are any number of good reasons to do so. If you are looking for some, read “Where Men Win Glory,” Jon Krakauer’s book on Patrick Tillman.

But we can always — not just today — honor those who went to war, who were, and are, willing to put their lives at risk for each other and for our larger ideals.

***

Last week’s column misstated an element of the redistricting plan authored by Rudy Espinoza Murray. The plan contains an undivided Belmont.

Mark Simon is a veteran journalist, whose career included 15 years as an executive at SamTrans and Caltrain. He can be reached at marksimon@smdailyjournal.com.

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(10) comments

aball52

AS I sat for the wonderful American Legion service at the courthouse.. The medley of the five service songs played my husband if 51 years sat beside me a Vietnam Purple heart Marine stood up and saluted the whole from the hall of Montezuma song I had never seen his salute before I realized the husband of 51 years sat next to me the United Stated Marine stood next to me so straight tall and solid saluting his service song Vietnam Purple Heart Vet I will never forget this tribute from American Legion Vets the Golden Gate young Marines were right by his side saluting with him. He told them when the Drill Sargent passes by look at one spot on the wall and keep looking the whole time he passes by. There was my Marine giving solid advice to these Hayward Young Marines...Semper fi..I stand in awe of them all what a gift they give and have given us all. and still are giving us all now and forever..

Dirk van Ulden

As a Vietnam Era veteran, and not in a combat role, I was fortunate to take advantage of the GI Bill which eventually provided me with a profession. During one of my business trips I went to the Vietnam Memorial and almost felt guilty for having survived. All of those names, all of whom never had the opportunity that I had and it made me cry. The Memorial so sadly resonates for my generation that was drafted of whom more than 50,000 never made it back.

Ray Fowler

Thanks for standing tall and taking the oath to support and defend our way of life...

Tafhdyd

Mr. Simon,

Thank you for your heartfelt and moving story. My wife and I visited the Vietnam Memorial about fifteen years ago while visiting the area for my nephew’s college graduation. We also had tears in our eyes just watching the emotions of those individuals and families that found the names of their friends and loved ones and traced their name with their fingers. Many stood in silence, others knelt, and almost all wiped a tear from their eyes.

We can only hope and pray that some future generation will not have a need to build memorials for those killed in needless wars.

Comment deleted.
Tafhdyd

Ray,

Thank you for your service also. You were farther up the chain of command than I was and probably closer to the action flying those big birds than I was. I think I told you before most of my time was in the Arctic and Antarctic on the icebreaker making way for supply ships to the bases before being transferred back home to Treasure Island.

Ray Fowler

Hey, buddy...

You served with honor. I submitted an "Add Reply" to your earlier post, but it looks like it did not make it to the comments section. Here it is again: Thanks for standing tall and taking the oath to support and defend our way of life...

Tafhdyd

Ray,

I saw your comment from the 10:34 post (just like your 10:33 above) and that is what I replied to at 11:28.

Not sure why your comment was deleted.

Terence Y

Mr. Simon – we tend to disagree more than we agree, but for today’s column, I wholeheartedly agree. Thanks for relating a few of your “moments.”

craigwiesner

Thank you for this beautiful tribute to those who have served and those who help to tell their stories. A dear friend who served in Vietnam is getting great care from the VA to treat the terrible toll Agent Orange and other chemicals wreaked havoc on his body. My father received wonderful care during the last years of his life with the scars of WWII taking their toll. I am grateful knowing that after my eight years of service in the Air Force, should I need it, the VA will be there for me too. I'm grateful that the VA will now take care of veterans whose health has been impacted by toxic burn pits. I pray that we all strive to keep our nation at peace so that future generations don't have to suffer the consequences of war.

Ray Fowler

Hello, Craig

Happy Veterans Day! I tried to thank you for your service but my comment did not get posted. No problem. I can say it more than once. Thanks for standing tall and taking the oath to support and defend our way of life...

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