On July 7, 1966, while undergoing basic training in the U.S. Army Medical Corps at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, I visited the Alamo. The heroism and patriotism on display reminded of my childhood in the early 1940s, when I marched proudly around our house to the strains of a popular World War II fight song whose refrain went, "Remember Pearl Harbor as we did the Alamo." See-ing the 100 or so names of national heroes on the memorial there - James Bowie, William Travis, Davy Crockett - should have been a source of pride to a young American being processed as a Medical Corps captain. But on the last plaque, the final entry read:John - Negro Boy.
That ruined my visit. Was John really a boy, or was he a Negro man who died as did the others, fighting for his country? Didn't he have a last name, like the others? Was his first name really John, or was it just known that there was "a nigra up there who got kilt so we'll just call him John"? As an African American, should I be thankful that they bothered to mention him at all?
Years later, I visited the Vietnam Memorial. In the intervening time, I had spent a harrowing year in Vietnam as a military surgeon. Ihad struggled not to drown in a river of blood, which was flowing by me and sometimes over me at a rapid and powerful rate. My role was that of the commanding officer of an orthopedic MASH-type specialty unit attached to the 85th Evac Hospital in Qui Nhon, Vietnam. Iworked at a kind of epicenter of the human realities of the war. I treated a twenty-year-old infantryman who had stepped on a land mine, which blew off his left foot and riddled his leg with shrapnel; I wanted to grab President Johnson by the elbow and show him that terrified, bloodied young man, writhing in pain.
I treated a young combat trooper named Bryan who had lost both his legs all the way up to just below his hip joints. We had to take him back to surgery several times to control the bleeding from his stumps. After seeing him a couple of times in the hospital, on the second day Iwent to his bedside to check on his condition and needs. I will never forget the question he asked me: "Well, Doc, Iknow I lost both my legs, but did I keep my balls?" I had not expected the question so soon. After a long pause, I told him that with hormone therapy he would maintain his manly qualities, but he could never father children.
All the dead included on the Vietnam Memorial have first and last names. But a disproportionate number of those names - more than 20 percent - belong to African Americans. The year I spent in Vietnam treating black, white, and yellow soldiers made me more aware of myself as a black, an African American, a minority, a member of a subordinated group. Have we made progress during the century between the Alamo and the fall of Saigon? Yes, but not enough. There have been positive changes, but in our nation, people of color remain very much disadvantaged.
The wall at the Vietnam Memorial starts out very low, only one line of names deep, then rises to a steep peak in the middle - 131 names from top to bottom. It trails off to the end, where it is again only one line deep. Up and down, like the cycle of our hope. There is a time of peace, then we escalate to the point of all-out war, and then, when it becomes intolerable, there is a gradual decrescendo of violence. We grieve and build our memorials. Our hopes rise again - hopes for preventing wars and maintaining peace. They escalate, then decline. Probably the memorial builders will remain in business for the foreseeable future.
Decades away from the days of sitting sadly at the delta of a river of blood and wondering why, Iwatched the sun strike the black wall of the Vietnam Memorial, transforming it into a mirror reflecting those of us who are still alive. We exist, we visit, we become one with the memorial. The mirror makes us face ourselves and gives us back to ourselves. It integrates us into the tragedy.
When we walk away, so do our reflections. But the wall stays, and so do the names. Those of us who came home from Vietnam feel a deep sense of obligation to those who didn't. What can we do? We can do everything possible to prevent such a war from happening again. How? By supporting principles of conflict resolution without war. By keeping chauvinism and competition in the economic and athletic arenas and off the battlefield. By maintaining hope that there will be progress and that the cycle of war, peace, and grief will end, once and for all.
When I walked away from the wall an hour later, I took my reflection and my reflections with me. I left behind a big part of my soul and as much hope as I'm capable of.