For What Did They Die?

It is autumn, and the air is crisp and cool at night at the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

It gets very quiet at The Wall around midnight. The tourists have gone home, and are all tucked into bed.

homeless Vietnam veteran patrols the black granite panels. He tells us
that he has cancer and is having a hard time getting any benefits from
the Veterans Administration. He lives in a mission that houses those
who have nowhere else to go, but the doors don't open until 11 p.m.

sees my interest in Panel 3-East, the third panel to the east of the
apex of the memorial, and he asks if I was there at the Ia Drang Valley
battles that contributed 305 of the names that are on that panel. I
nod, and he grows animated. "Oh, I know these guys well. Or at least I
know their names." He begins calling the roll to prove it: "Henry T.
Herrick, John Geoghegan, Willie Godboldt, Travis Poss, Carl Palmer,
Wilbur Curry, Thomas C. Metsker . . . ."

Twenty, then 30 of the names trip off his lips. "I tell people about them when they ask."

So do I.

slip a few bucks into his hand for something to eat and he wanders off
into the night, heading for the mission and a cot where he can rest his
head until 7 a.m., when he and the other homeless are shooed out to
begin another day of waiting for something good, finally, to happen to

I hope that he lives long enough to collect some benefits
and get some medical help from the VA, although given the 6- 8-month
backlog in processing veterans' claims, there's no guarantee that he

I stand before Panel 3-East and slowly scan those names,
remembering their stories, their hometowns, their wives and children,
remembering, too, how and where they died and what it all means.

they die so that a brother veteran can die waiting in line for a little
help from the nation that sent them all off to war in the prime of
their youth?

Did they die so that four decades later, an American
president and his cronies could start another needless war in a far-off
land, a war that to date has dragged on almost as long as the one they
fought in Southeast Asia?

Did they die so that wounded veterans
of that war could come home to a lot of "Welcome Home" greetings and a
lot of "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers, but facing the same fight
that America's veterans have always faced when they try to get
treatment and benefits from our Army and our Veterans Administration?

they die so that an administration full of draft dodgers and draft
avoiders and almost bereft of anyone who ever wore a uniform or heard a
shot fired in anger could prance around presenting themselves as
wartime leaders?

Did they die so that 10,000 craven politicians
could stand on bandstands and make speeches full of empty praise for
those who protect and defend this country and make empty promises of
how they guarantee that our wounded, our new veterans, will be treated
better than their fathers and grandfathers were when they came home
from their wars?

The men and women who wear the uniform today
are, many of them, on their fourth or fifth combat tours in Afghanistan
or Iraq. They and their families do all the suffering and sacrificing
for the rest of us.

Meanwhile over in the Pentagon, the bean
counters run their computers and come up with the good news: The
economic meltdown in America, the growing ranks of the unemployed, the
complete lack of work or prospect of a decent future in the rural and
urban backwaters of a great nation make for a boom in enlistments in
our voluntary military.

If you sign on the bottom line because
you have no other alternative, no other way out of nowhereville, are
you really a volunteer?

The bands will play, and the old veterans
will march proudly and the politicians will run their mouths this
Veterans Day, just as they do every Veterans Day.

And the 400,000
dead of World War II and the 40,000 dead of Korea and the 58,260 dead
of Vietnam and the 4,500 dead of Iraq and Afghanistan will rest silent
and uneasy under the modest white marble tombstones that a grateful
nation has provided them free of charge.

Across town, an old and
ailing veteran of one of those wars will line up tonight for a cot in a
mission and wonder whether he can live long enough to collect from the
bureaucrats what we owe him.

On Army posts around the nation, the
battalions and brigades and divisions are either just coming home after
a year or more at war while other battalions and brigades are just
saying their goodbyes and heading back out on their third or fourth or
fifth deployments.

"Where have all the flowers gone?

Gone for soldiers, every one.

When will they ever learn?"

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