WASHINGTON - Thick beads of sweat poured down the faces of the three Soldiers out on patrol in Vietnam.
They appeared to be sad and tired. What were they thinking?
The cold rain rolling down their bodies and dripping off their rifles seemed to make them come to life.
The three Soldiers are forever frozen in time at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a short distance from the Memorial Wall. The bronze statues were dedicated in 1984, two years after the wall.
December 24, 2014 - Scenes of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (top), a statue of a soldier on patrol in Vietnam(bottom right), and the Korean War Memorial (bottom left) at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Christmas Eve ... reminding all the cost that comes with America's freedom that sometimes requires our brave troops going to war ... allowing the the celebration of Christmas and all other holidays. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photos by David Vergun)
The only people outside in the area were a few intrepid joggers. I was expecting to see a visitor or two at least, but with it being Christmas Eve 2014, people were undoubtedly with friends and loved ones. And the weather was just plain nasty to boot.
Then, a jogger ran up to the wall and paused, looking at the Wall, which glistened as rivulets trickled down the sides over the more than 58,200 names etched in stone - those missing or killed in action during the war.
What's he thinking? I wondered. So I asked him if he'd known any of the fallen.
"No, but every time I'm here, I stop. It's a cool spot."
"Were you in the military?" I asked, hoping not to seem too nosey.
"I was in the Navy on a destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam," he said. "When the ceasefire was called in 1973, we left the area."
So he was a Vietnam veteran, I thought to myself. He had a personal connection with the war and the wall must have special meaning.
He then quickly added, "I wasn't on the ground like the Army and Marine guys. Probably most of the names are those guys."
But still, he served and I thanked him for that.
He said he's a sales rep for construction materials and that his son is serving in the State Department, just a short jog away.
Before he left, he said, "I understand they're trying to get all the pictures of the people here. I'm surprised they don't have them all by now."
I told him I agree that it would be great to have all the faces with the names.
And, then he was off, jogging in the rain.
The wall forms about a 125-degree angle. At the angle, which is also the tallest portion of the wall, someone had placed a Christmas tree with decorations and mementos to the fallen.
The mementos included pictures of the fallen and notes to them. Some were hard to read because the rain had made the ink run.
"Even if you didn't make it, you are still honored and loved in our country" - Averi Sievert, age 11, Oxford, North Carolina."
Almost certainly a class trip, I thought after reading another one, also from Oxford - "Thank You for all you have done, for all of us!" The "all" and "us" had three lines drawn under them for emphasis. It was signed "Jaya."
Another simply said "Merry Christmas" and had a rainbow and smiley face and a Christmas tree with baubles drawn in crayon. It had fallen off the tree onto some fall leaves that had collected there in the angle.
"Thank you for what you have done for our country. Sincerely:________" read another, with no name.
One tribute was rather lengthy: "Dear Soldier, My name is Seung (pronounced Sung) and I'd like to personally thank you for serving our country. This isn't something I throw around like it's nothing, because I'm truthfully grateful for all you and fellow veterans do/did for us. Willingly risking your life to keep everyone safe and free is very brave and selfless. I know you put effort through every single thing you do, putting others before yourself. It's an honor to know you, protecting us, something I can't thank you enough."
The ink had run off some of the words, which couldn't be made out, unfortunately.
Then there were pictures hanging on the tree of the service members who had died. Something I noticed was that many of them were killed on Christmas Day: "Kenneth M. Bryant, KIA December 25, 1968;" "Charles D. King, KIA December 25, 1968;" "Earl W. Knutson Jr., December 25, 1966;" "Richard Budka, KIA December 25, 1967," and others.
Some had other days and months and some just had the pictures without the dates and some didn't even have names, just pictures.
It was overwhelming. I wanted to wait all day for someone to come along and tell me a story about someone they knew, but like many, I had friends and family coming over later in the day who would stay at our house for Christmas.
But for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, there would never be another Christmas or other holiday to celebrate.
So I moved on to the Korean War Veterans Memorial nearby, gazing at the cold, dripping statues.
Three busloads of Chinese speaking tourists poured out, pausing to look at the Korean Memorial and snap some photos before running off excitedly to the nearby Lincoln Memorial, which seemed to be the main attraction.
Again, no luck finding any Korean War veterans.
As I gazed at the statues of the squad of Soldiers in wedge formation, I recalled having talked to many of the veterans - Army and Marine - who were there on Christmas Day 1950 in the bitter cold. Their accounts were chilling and while I was now drenched and cold, I couldn't have imagined what it must have been like for them.
At the nearby National World War II Memorial, which I stopped by earlier in the day, the only visitors were several hundred geese, parked on the lawn, nibbling on whatever snacks they could find. The fountain was shut off and one of the walkways was blocked.
Every year there are fewer and fewer World War II veterans and one day there will be just one left, I thought, remembering Frank Buckles, the last U.S. Soldier from World War I who died in 2011.
Someday, there will be just one Korean and Vietnam War veteran alive and then there will be none. But these monuments to them will live on and their stories will be told forever, along with the stories of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and whatever future wars there might be.
Courtesy of U.S. Army
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