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From a Hidden Box in the Hallway

A box hidden in the hallway closet brings back memories and is the impetus for a long overdue visit. Coping mechanisms are necessary, and sometimes things hidden away have a higher purpose.



Eyes downcast, he made it this far on sheer willpower alone. Everything in his being wanted to turn around. What made him come now he couldn’t explain. He had spent a lifetime of moving past and not looking back. He refused to talk about it and tried to forget, but no one ever really forgets. Seared into his being like a cattle brand, he was forever marked.


He was a different person once—full of idealism and youthful naiveté. If he thought long and hard, he could remember a faint glimmer of who he used to be. But the jungles, rice paddies, and the parlors of politicians had other plans for him.


Looking to the side, he saw the long wall—too long. Why did it have to be so long? Each and every name engraved was an infinitesimally small reminder of a life snuffed out before their time. A few visitors stopped, paper and charcoal in hand to rub an etching of a name, a life, that they once knew.


He knew too many on that wall, and in the pages of the books that served as directories. A guide to the location of a debt that could never be repaid.


Perhaps closure had brought him here. He was generations older now, a grandfather in fact. It was his grown grandson who had found the hidden box in the back of the hallway closet. He had watched as his grandson pulled out picture after picture, along with dog tags, faded letters, and more than a few medals. He could do little but nod yes or no. Eventually he had to step away and walk outside to the backyard.


He had refused to let his wife keep those tall ornamental grasses she had planted along the back fence line. At first, she didn’t understand and explained she couldn’t return them and the cost, but then she saw the thousand-yard stare creep back into his eyes. She silently nodded and got to work digging them up without another word. He knew she suffered as well. The worry of his active combat years was replaced by the worry from the night terrors that still plagued him.


Not long after the rediscovery of the hallway box, he asked her help to book a plane flight and hotel reservations. Gently she asked for one passenger or two. Answering with one, he reached for her hand and squeezed it. He loved her so, but he had to do this alone.


And so, he found himself in Washington, D.C. this day. Freshly shaven and dressed in the middle-class uniform of khakis and a button up shirt, he had walked to the memorial. He stood in front of it now. Gingerly, he took his hand from his pocket and touched a name, running his fingers along its length. Such a simple movement, and yet so incredibly wrought with emotion. He lowered his hand and took a breath.


He walked the length of the wall in a slow, measured pace. The reflection on the memorial of the sky and surrounding area made him pause.


It was then that he found himself in front of The Three Servicemen Statue. He found himself transfixed as if looking into a mirror. He could have been the one on the right. He had kept a towel around his neck whenever possible and carried his weapon just so. Their stance and everything down to the dog tag on the right bootlace was lifted from his lived experience. The humanity of it all transported him.


Tears streamed down his face and he let them fall. The darkness, the reeds, the never-ending rain, rotor blades, machine gun fire, explosions, stretchers. Pleading for them to hang on as a limp hand dangled. He had seen last moments over and over and over again. And he had seen other times when the end came too sudden for any comfort to be given. He became battle-hardened, steely. The other options of alcohol, opium, or heroin were not much better.


He wiped his eyes and resolved to himself that he would tell their stories. He was given the gift of survival. Call it luck, a blessing, a fluke. He was able to keep on living, when so many other lives were cut short. Yes, he would start with his grandson. And a rubbing.


“Excuse me, do you happen to have an extra piece of paper and a charcoal I could borrow?” he asked a woman who had stopped to pay her respects.


“Of course, here you go. I always bring more than I need,” she said as she sniffed, holding back tears. “My Dad was a Vietnam vet and he passed away a few years ago. He would always come here once a year. Said he needed to visit with his friends. Thought I’d continue the tradition in his honor.”


 

ABOUT THE PHOTO


The statue of The Three Servicemen is located in Washington, D.C. and is part of the Vietnam War Memorial. Designed and made by Frederick Hart, the statue depicts three men, one Caucasian, one African-American, and one Hispanic.


Of the memorial, Frederick Hart said, "I see the wall as a kind of ocean, a sea of sacrifice that is overwhelming and nearly incomprehensible in the sweep of names. I place these figures upon the shore of that sea, gazing upon it, standing vigil before it, reflecting the human face of it, the human heart.


The portrayal of the figures is consistent with history. They wear the uniform and carry the equipment of war; they are young. The contrast between the innocence of their youth and the weapons of war underscores the poignancy of their sacrifice. There is about them the physical contact and sense of unity that bespeaks the bonds of love and sacrifice that is the nature of men at war. And yet they are each alone. Their strength and their vulnerability are both evident. Their true heroism lies in these bonds of loyalty in the face of their awareness and their vulnerability."


Click here to watch a brief, two minute video about the statue and its symbolism.


For additional information, please visit Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund here.

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