A Replica That Packs a Punch

Today is Veterans Day in the United States. Originally called Armistice Day, Veterans Day marks the date that World War I formally came to an end. Veterans Day is intended to honor all who have served in the US military (in contrast to Memorial Day, which honors those who gave their lives in service to their country).

Veterans Day seems to take on more and more significance for me with every passing year. While I never served in the military myself, my father served in the Army in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and a good chunk of my childhood was spent moving around between military bases. My mom told me recently that she moved 22 times in their first 26 years of marriage–her own kind of service as a military spouse.

Just before this year’s Veterans Day, I learned of a newly dedicated Vietnam Memorial replica in Punta Gorda, Florida, about 45 minutes drive from my parents’ home in Fort Myers. It is one of just four such replica walls in the country. My parents are both 92, and their military heritage is important to them…and to me. So a Veterans Day plan was hatched.

My father’s unit in Vietnam was the 34th Engineers, and he always said that the 34th was his best assignment–with troops that were “the best of the best.”

Many from the 34th are still in touch through their annual reunions, and each year at the reunion they hold a memorial service for the 21 members of the unit that didn’t come home. Reunion locations have ranged from California to Maine to Puerto Rico to Washington, DC, with the constant being a lot of folks that share a special bond from their service in Vietnam.

21 might seem like a small number in contrast to the 58,307 U.S. service members that were lost in Vietnam—but it is a very big number for a veteran looking back on his or her service, and obviously a very big number for the families and friends of each person on that wall. After all, we know full well that these aren’t just numbers.

As for our visit today, the replica Vietnam Memorial Wall in Punta Gorda is extremely well done. It’s located in Laishley Park, right next to the water, in a setting that seems almost designed for it (even though the wall was just built this year, long after the park was established). The Punta Gorda wall is exactly half the size of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, but the impact of seeing all of those names can never be scaled.

Visiting a memorial may be more appropriate on Memorial Day than on Veterans Day, I know. But visiting a memorial on any day seems like time well spent. Our country has gotten better at remembering those that we have lost, and at recognizing those who have served–but I’m not sure that we have quite reached the level of “best of the best.”

All in all, it was a beautiful November day in southwest Florida–and we appreciated the opportunity to thank our veterans, and to remember those that paid the ultimate price. Thanks to the city of Punta Gorda for helping us remember, and thanks to all of you veterans out there for your service!

Right at Home

I’m in San Juan, Puerto Rico this weekend as the volunteer videographer/photographer for an annual reunion of Army veterans that served in Vietnam between 1967 and 1971. Gatherings like this aren’t so much about the food or the place; they are about the people and the experience that connects them–people like Manuel and Brian and Charlie and Rolla, guys (and now their families, too) that see each other maybe once a year, and each time in a different city.

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IMG_5126Folks did enjoy the place, too, of course. Puerto Rico means Rich Port in Spanish, and San Juan is the second oldest European settlement in the west (after Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic). The city was first settled by Ponce de Leon in 1508, and it is chock full of history. The fort here dates to the 1500s, and it was still in use as late as World War II. The island also has a proud history of military service, with nearly 50,000 Puerto Ricans serving in Vietnam–including SGT Manuel Rivera, who hosted this year’s reunion.

The weekend has been packed with activities like tours of the Yunque Rain Forest and the Yunque_waterfallcity, including a visit to the Governor’s mansion and the Capitol–but the main attraction is the people standing in this room. There are nearly a hundred folks here from places ranging from San Juan to Maine to California, and they have more in common than one might think–especially when one surveys a room mixed with suit jackets and tank tops.

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PFC Mead’s monkey

Conversations ranged from catching up on the past year to good-natured kidding about things that happened almost 50 years ago–like the time that PFC Mead bought a pet monkey in Bien Hoa, or img113the time that Ken “accidentally” bumped the Colonel into a trailer full of ice water. Oh, and apparently getting a bulldozer stuck in the mud is something that stays with you for life (I’m going to keep that in mind the next time I set out to clear a few acres).

Mixed in with the tours and banquets was a touching memorial service for the 21 members of the unit that didn’t make it home, a ceremony that has become the centerpiece of each reunion going back to 1996. A candle was lit for each of the soldiers lost in Vietnam, a somber moment in the midst of a weekend that otherwise felt like a celebration. I never served so I can’t even pretend to understand, but it seems that remembering these soldiers is the very least that we can do–just as was done last year in San Diego, and just as will be done next year in Indianapolis.

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All in all, it’s a wonderful weekend of fellowship and remembrance. The veterans and their families that came to Puerto Rico traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to get here, some even having to dodge Hurricane Joaquin on the way, but right now they are all right at home.