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Monday, July 10, 2006

Take Them There

Take Them There
by Russ Vaughn

There is a wonderful musical/visual tribute to WWII vets that people email me occasionally, entitled Before You Go. It can be found numerous places on the Internet, among them here:

If you get through it without a huge lump in your throat, you’re tougher than I am. It is altogether fitting that someone has put together such a tribute to those who stopped world Fascism in its tracks some sixty years ago. It is strange that there haven’t been many more such tributes; in fact, I am sure that there have been but perhaps not on the scale of this particular effort. There is, however, a tribute far greater, far grander to honor these warriors, and that is our national World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Constructed at a cost of almost $200 million and opened in the spring of 2004, it has quickly become one of the more popular monuments in a city of monuments.

I had followed the creation of this memorial from the beginning and contributed in a small way to its funding in honor of my father’s memory and my octogenarian father-in-law, both participants in WWII. Leading up to the dedication on Memorial Day weekend in 2004, I had been thinking about the possibility of taking my father-in-law, Watt, to see what his country had erected in his honor. Wanting to avoid the crowds associated with any major opening event, I decided to wait a couple of months. Also factored into my hesitation was the fact that in my thirty-six year marriage to his daughter, I had heard Watt speak only briefly of his WWII experiences. He had been a draftee, a young, married Texan, coming out of the Great Depression a family to raise, when the war broke out. My perception is that he had been hesitant to volunteer because of his responsibilities, but when the summons came, he, like so many other young husbands and fathers stepped up to serve his country and reluctantly left his wife to fend as best she could.

I had never known Watt to wear any insignia, lapel button, cap or whatever indicating his veteran status; he was a member of no veterans’ organization. So it was with a bit of hesitation that I finally popped the question during a phone call. To my surprise, after a moment to think, he responded to the effect that he thought it would be really nice; he would really like to see the memorial. Getting off the phone I kicked it into high gear because I knew the logistics of getting him there and getting him around in a wheelchair were going to be a bit of a problem. I called an old friend in Virginia Beach, a Vietnam vet like me, and asked him if he’d like to join us. Max and I had worked together many years in government marketing and I knew he knew Washington like the back of his hand. To my relief, he readily agreed to drive up and act as our guide and provide transportation with me to cover the hotel expenses.

I then got on the Internet and began researching my father-in-law’s unit, the 65th Infantry Division. Knowing that this was one of the many divisions created specifically for WWII and disbanded as soon as the war ended, I was amazed to discover a division diary with detailed maps and information about the division’s campaigns from the time it landed in France to war’s end. I printed out everything and arranged it in a report format. I then found a website maintained by one of the 65th vets where I could purchase a 65th division crest. I found other sites with other WWII crests and ribbons. I purchased a snappy, WWII vet baseball cap and adorned it with these crests and ribbons.

Watt flew into San Antonio where I joined him for the continuing flight to Washington. At the departure gate I presented him with his cap and the report on the 65th. I was unsure as to the reception the cap would receive, knowing that he’d never worn anything commemorating his service before. And, in fact, he did hesitate; he was wearing a cap given him by his son just to wear on this trip. But as he sat there in his wheelchair, looking at the Army cap in his hand, I could see him wavering. Of course I knew he didn’t want to insult me and I assured him that would not be the case should he choose to continue wearing his present cap. But it was more than that: he wanted to put that Army cap on and finally let people know he’d served. And he did. And from that day on he has worn it frequently, to the point now that it’s beginning to look a little worn. You know, sometimes I like to think that maybe that cap and our trip awakened a long-dormant pride in my father-in-law of his brief but historically consequential contribution to his country. I sure hope so.

And thus we flew to Washington that July day. To my utter amazement, the day we visited the Memorial, the weather was picture perfect, clear, bright blue sky, a slight cooling breeze and none of the sticky humidity I’d been expecting. It was much more like a fall day than mid-summer. The memorial itself was all I’d hoped for, both beautiful and dignified, fitting for its purpose. Water and splashing fountains are incorporated into the design reflective of the on, under, above and across the ocean exploits of those whom it honors. It is a grand monument without being grandiose and the open circularity of its design brings to mind the globe-encompassing scale of that great conflict.

But it’s the vets themselves that make it special. For the whole time there, I found my emotions whipsawing between lump-in-the-throat sorrow and hearty, happy camaraderie: sorrow for the 400,000 who never made it back and the uncounted number who had, but then died before the completion of this tribute to their sacrifice; and hearty, warrior’s camaraderie from being here with one of the fortunate ones who had lived to see on this beautiful summer day the esteem in which his countrymen and descendants hold him and his brothers. There were far more smiles and grinning faces than the saddened wistful countenances you see at the Wall, that long, solemn gravestone for my own war. I found myself wistfully wishing that we Vietnam veterans had a less lugubrious, more celebratory memorial. But then, according to the left-driven conventional wisdom, we didn’t win our war did we?

Max and I wheeled Watt all around stopping to visit other vets momentarily, many of them in wheel chairs like him. Their greetings and exchanges were sometimes clumsy and hesitant but all were heartfelt. Of course, there were children everywhere, running, laughing, playing as children will when in a park with ponds and fountains. And seeing the interaction between the veterans and the young, it occurred to me that the thought must be running through many of those wizened old grey heads, that “but for our willingness to serve and our sacrifice…”

That night, back at the hotel, two old Vietnam vets and one old WWII vet did what old war dogs tend to do: we sat around drinking way too much and woofing war stories, anecdotes separated chronologically by the two decades between Watt’s war and ours, but indistinguishable in content and humor. And that night, Watt wasn’t just my father-in-law; he was my comrade in arms, just like Max, and he remains so to this day. If I outlive this tough old Texan, which remains in doubt considering his constitution and my bad habits, I will see that Taps is played at his graveside. I think he’d like that.

So back to the original intent of this writing: take them there. If you have WWII vets in your immediate or extended family, bust your butts to figure out a way to get them there to see their country’s monument to their contribution to history. Sacrifice a few days of your own vacation, get senior discounted airfares, buy them caps and wheel them around their memorial. While you and they still have the chance, take them there…before they go.

Russ Vaughn

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