Remarks: Veterans Day 2009 at Vietnam Memorial Wall, Washington D.C.

Thank you Walt Sides. Semper fi. And thank you to Jan Scruggs and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund for inviting me to participate in this occasion. I am honored to join here with so many who share a commitment to remembering.

For the past few years I have worked with veterans wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan to encourage and enable them to pursue their dreams through education. Today we remember those who did not have an opportunity to pursue their dreams.

I grew up in a mining town, Galena, Illinois. With four friends I joined the Marines in 1957 at the age of 17—to keep me out of the mines for at least a few years. When I returned in 1960 I decided to go to college—but I needed to work in the mines while in school. My boss when I worked underground was Clarence Lyden. He was a good boss, a good man, who had received a Purple Heart while serving in the Army in World War II. He encouraged me to become a powderman, setting dynamite charges, in order to earn 20 cents more an hour. I did take on this assignment and continued to study—and was a student teacher back in my old high school.

One of my students in an English class was Clarence Lyden’s son, Michael. I remember him as an energetic, pleasant, hard working young man. A few years later he was drafted and went into the Army where he became a sergeant in the 101st Airborne. Already holding a purple heart, Michael died on May 15, 1969 in Operation Apache Snow at a place we remember as Hamburger Hill.

This Wall records the sons—and daughters—of many miners, factory workers, and farmers. And so many others. The Wall contains the names of fifteen graduates of Dartmouth. I did not know any of them. But I came to know well the father, the sister, the brother, the classmates, the coach and teammates of one.

Bill Smoyer grew up in comfortable circumstances in New Jersey. At Dartmouth he was an All-Ivy soccer player and a star hockey player. He was by all accounts a gracious and generous young man, a gentleman. And he joined the Marines in order to go to Vietnam because he believed that wars should not be fought only by the sons of the miners, farmers, and factory workers. He was in Vietnam for only two weeks on July 28, 1968 when his platoon was caught in an ambush while crossing a rice paddy at An Hoa. 2nd Lieutenant Smoyer and eighteen other members of Kilo company, 3rd Battalion Seventh Marines were killed that Sunday.

Who knows what Billy Smoyer and Mike Lyden would have done with their lives? Mike may have gone back to work at the Kraft Foods plant in Galena—he did not want to follow his dad into the mines. His old teacher here believes that whatever he did he would have done well. Billy Smoyer was a history major who may have gone into business—but all attest that whatever he did he would have tried to make a difference for others.

Late this past summer my wife, Susan, and I visited Normandy where we spent a lot of time walking through the American cemetery at Colleville. The white marble crosses and Stars of David filled the hillside with a sense of order and tranquility—and whispered of lives lost. We walked among the graves for some time, reading the names, observing where they were from and how old they were. We thought of lives cut short and of dreams unrealized and wanted to know more about them.

Casualties of war cry out to be known—as persons, not as abstractions called casualties nor as numbers entered into the books, and not only as names chiseled into marble or granite. We have carried in our memories the stories of those recorded here. But memories fade--as do those who remember. We are graying. After all of us who knew them are gone, the names on this Wall will endure.

It is essential that the Education Center planned for this site sparkle with the human records of those whose sacrifice was forever. We need to ensure that here, in this place of memory, lives as well as names are recorded. Lives with smiling human faces, remarkable accomplishments, engaging personalities, and with dreams to pursue. We do this for them, for history, and for those in the future who will send the young to war.

(To see a video of the Veterans' Day commemoration at The Wall, including President Wright's remarks, click here.)