Setting out to honor the memory of Steve Warner (pictured above), our Vietnam unit's lone fallen comrade, on Memorial Day in 1971 proved to be a lot harder than it should have been. As I remember it, there were at least two major obstacles - one had to do with the Army's troop replacement policy in Vietnam (365-day tours), meaning that most of the guys who knew Steve had, by May, gone home while very few of the remaining GIs in our Information Office at Army headquarters even knew who Steve Warner was, except that his was the name that was followed by the phrase "The only member of USARV IO killed in action in Vietnam." Not that the newbies didn't care, but their own personal connection to Steve didn't exist, even though they were doing the same things he did as a military journalist.
The other problem was that in May 1971 we didn't know just when in the hell Memorial Day was taking place! The National Holiday Act of 1971 had moved the "celebration" of Memorial Day from its traditional day of observance -- May 30 -- to the last Monday in May so that all hard-working Americans could enjoy a three-day holiday weekend.
Of course, we hardest-working Americans -- U.S. soldiers at war in Vietnam -- could've cared less about three-day weekends, not to mention we'd missed the hoopla surrounding the passage of the National Holiday Act. So, when the time came to honor Steve, who'd been killed by a rocket propelled grenade on Valentine's Day in 1971 while he was covering the invasion of Laos for our office, half the guys wanted to do this on May 30, the rest of us on Monday, May 31, that year's "new" Memorial Day.
But without a parade, a grave, or a poppy, what in the world were we going to do to properly honor Steve anyway?
We eventually agreed to pay our respects to Steve on both days, displaying some of his first-rate stories and extraordinary photos around our office (we were not enjoying a three-day weekend) and singing the words to Taps at the end of each day, choking back tears to get out the words "Day is done/gone the sun . . ."
For the past ten years my Memorial Day ritual has been to visit the Gettysburg College website (Steve's alma mater) and look at the scores of incredible photographs he shot during his tour of duty in Vietnam that are archived there. I look at them and try to recognize faces and remember names. I stare at Steve's photos and wonder what happened to the hundreds of GIs and Vietnamese he photographed and hope with all my heart that all of them are safe and sane.
And I wonder how good a writer, teacher, husband, and father Steve Warner would have been. And if anyone visits his grave on May 30, or, this year, on May 27 -- or any day for that matter -- and leaves a poppy or a prayer or just simply says thank you. "He was the only member of USARV IO killed in action in Vietnam."
And it's a damn shame, Memorial Day or no Memorial Day.