The first time I went to put my hand on the name of a friend carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I didn’t make it.
It probably was in the mid-1980s that my wife and I, with our two young children, were visiting another couple with two children who lived in Reston. They were escorting us around capital sites and, at one point, the father pointed across the grass and said, “That’s where the wall is. Would you like to see it?”
I said, “Sure.” Our friends volunteered to stay with the four children, and my wife and I walked to the site. Unconcerned about my reaction, I didn’t even stop to ask where my friend’s name was. I just assumed I would find it.
I was perhaps a fourth of the way down the sloping walkway when the wheels came loose. I said to my wife, “I can’t do this now.” Or at least I think those words came out of my mouth; they might have just been in my heart.
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In either case, she took me by the elbow and escorted me back to where we’d begun. It would be 10 years before I returned and touched the name, Steven H. Warner.
Without consciously intending to, I had over that decade adopted the perspective of an eighth-century, six-character Chinese poem by Du Fu: “Blue smoke war/White bones men.” (An English version of the pictorial presentation might read “Blue is the smoke of war/White are the bones of men.”)
The first line puts readers away from the black smoke of explosion and destruction, aware of what’s happening but not in the middle of combustion. And the second moves us further off in a temporal frame, as the battle was long ago and the costs, though stark and clean in the white bones, have been fixed in the landscape.
The poem is a statement of resignation. Throughout their history, humans haven’t been able to exist without war. But war ends human existence. Bones become smoke.
And war needs humans to exist. To survive we must put this sad paradox of life and loss into a frame — like the six words in two balanced phrases — and learn to accept it, become resigned to it.
I courted this stance for decades to keep my memories of the Vietnam War at a comfortable distance. But events continually have undermined my ability to sustain it.
What inspired a new — and perhaps better — frame is the bond, evident on Memorial Day, that draws veterans together across generations, genders, races, branches, even politics. That connection was in play this spring when citizens of Farmville paid tribute to a fallen Vietnam veteran.
He’d become separated from family and friends, so local law enforcement officials and veterans groups organized his burial in the Virginia Veterans Cemetery in Amelia County. Patriot Riders led a procession of police and private vehicles to the gravesite.
After the ceremony, I sought out the grave of a good friend, an Air Force veteran who’d been my mentor at Longwood University for 40 years. Before I found the stone of William L. Frank, I literally stumbled across the grave of Thomas J. Bragg, another Vietnam veteran, who had passed away during the worst months of the pandemic. I had not known that he had died.
Bragg was the first veteran to contribute his story to a free writing program for military, veterans and family I direct at Longwood. To a workshop I offered in Blackstone in 2015 he’d carried a shoebox full of photos taken in Vietnam by he and his best friend over there, Edward Bartholomew Lama, of Mundelein, Ill.
Their friendship was strong despite differences of race, religion, class, region and culture. Lama was killed on March 31, 1969, a few weeks before he was due to return home. He’d volunteered to a last mission because he felt new recruits to his unit needed an experienced leader.
After he came home, Bragg always had wanted to contact the Lama family and share the photos he’d preserved over four decades. But limited resources, work at health care facilities and family obligations always were in the way, until retirement.
Together we were able to locate Lama’s brothers and other family members, allowing communication over years and across miles. Bragg wrote it all down in “‘Keeping it Lively’: The Search for Eddie Lama.”
RTD columnist Bill Lohmann wrote about his determination and loyalty. His words were picked up by other media, bringing surviving members of Bragg’s unit into contact with each other.
John Hodge of Evansville, Ind., their platoon leader, organized a unit reunion on March 31, 2019, 50 years after the death of their comrade, Lama. Hodge was severely wounded himself in that same battle and spent months in rehab at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Bragg rode from Blackstone to Illinois with his brother and a sister. In Mundelein a wreath was laid on Lama’s grave, a brief tribute was spoken by Hodge and taps were played on a cellphone. It was simple but profound.
The experience took me back to early March 1971 — 50 years and a few months ago — when I represented the comrades of Stephen H. Warner, a Vietnam soldier, at his burial in Princeton, N.J. He’d been drafted during his first year at Yale Law School.
My best friend in a company of Army correspondents, he was killed covering the incursion into Laos. As Warner’s military escort, I carried to his burial a handwritten letter in which he explained to his family how he’d willingly taken on this mission, despite being eligible to be sent home in a process of troop reduction.
I have stood beside graves of veterans too many times to maintain the composure embodied in “Blue Smoke War/ White Bones Men,” though it still gives me strength.
On Memorial Day 2021 I remember Robert Garrad Jr., Eddie Lama, Thomas Bragg, Stephen Warner, Bill Frank and all the others of different beliefs, origins and education to whom I am bound by common service. And I commend the family and friends who stand by all those who serve.
Michael Lund is a professor emeritus of English at Longwood University. He is director of Home and Abroad, a writing program for military, veterans and family. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org