I was invited to speak at the Milwaukee County Historical Society last week. The occasion was "A Face for Every Name," an effort to locate a photo of every one of the 1,244 Wisconsin names listed on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
That sure is an awful lot of sacrifice, and an inordinate amount of pain -- times 1,244 -- for me and my Wisconsin neighbors to endure. But the photo collection is one small step we can take to help ensure that the Wisconsin men and women who sacrificed their lives in Vietnam will never, ever be forgotten.
About 25 of us showed up for the workshop, a handful of Vietnam War veterans like myself and a number of interested community members eager to learn more about the war, this project, and how they can start to find and submit photos. "The Face for Every Name" activity is a partnership among Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, Milwaukee Public Radio, Milwaukee Public Television, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in Washington D.C. The partners are asking the people of Wisconsin to help put a face to these names and to honor their legacy. Each photo represents a life, each life a story.
We were told that to date more than 600 photos have been collected, and that the images will become part of the "Wall of Faces" -- a lasting tribute planned for the Vietnam Memorial Education Center near the mall in the nation's capital. There were refreshments, take-away information, and plenty of time for Q&A. I talked about my 365-day tour in Vietnam, but also about my work with veterans for the more than 40 years since, and my fellow vets in the meeting spoke of their own trials and tribulations. We talked a lot about music too, how it helped us to stay alive and how it helped us to heal.
As I watched and listened, I recalled that the same day I was invited to speak at the Face for Every Name event, I'd received an email from my fellow Vietnam vet Karl Marlantes, the brilliant author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War.
Karl wanted me to know that he had teamed up with award-winning journalist Sebastian Junger to urge Congress to pass legislation to establish a Presidential Commission on America and Its Veterans. They point out that 22 veterans commit suicide every day and that since 2010 an average of one soldier a day had taken his or her life.
"Our soldiers volunteered to serve their country in war," their proposal states, "but they did not volunteer to take over the entire moral burden that comes with it."
Some of that burden was present in the room in Milwaukee last week, most of it shouldered by the Vietnam vets who were present. So many wounds that still need to be healed.
Later, I thought about the thousands of new names we were adding to tombstones and memorials with the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I wondered just how we were going to heal all this new pain? It will take more than a photograph. It will need more than 25 people. It will need more than a Presidential Commission.
But we have to start somewhere -- with 25 of us meeting in Milwaukee, with believers like Marlantes and Junger, with legislators like Jim McDermott and Walter Jones who are co-sponsoring the bill to create the Commission, with the sister or cousin or nephew or neighbor who finds a photo so that all 1,244 Wisconsin names will one day have a photo to match.
And when we're done, let's agree to help today's warriors unburden their souls. And to stop asking anyone to ever have to kill in our name again.