A Visit To The Vietnam Memorial: What’s In A Name?
The day was humid and oppressively hot. A ride atop a double-decker tour bus to the Lincoln Memorial was the start of our third day in Washington, D.C. with two of our youngest grandkids, Austin, then age 11, and Anna-Kathryn, then age 8.
From there we took a little walk to a kiosk manned by a lone park ranger. He handed me a New York City-sized book for me to look up a name. I leafed through the pages and came upon the name I was looking for:
Roger Lee Barber
Panel 21E, Line 096 – 17 Dec 1943 – 13 Jun 1967
1ST PLT, A CO, 1ST BN, 35TH INFANTRY, 25TH INF DIV, USARV. Grade: E3; MOS: 11B10; Rank: PVT FIRST CLASS
From the kiosk, it was a slow, steady walk along the shaded, curved, tree lined path. We approached the Vietnam Veterans memorial statue and paused to look at the faces and poses it captured so well. My emotions began to move to ones of sadness and something akin to resignation. To our left we could see The Vietnam Memorial in its entirety and began to move in that direction.
As I moved closer, each step became more and more of an effort. I almost had to tell myself to move my feet. My legs felt as though they were made of lead.
We made the turn to the footpath in front of The Wall. I was somewhat shocked to see that tiny, inches high, first section had names on it. With each panel we passed, the lines of names grew and grew, along with the height of each panel. I passed the center point and noted the panel numbers had changed from ending with “W” to “E.” Then, there it was: Panel 21E.
I didn’t count the lines of names. I began somewhere near the bottom and began scanning each line. And there, slightly below my eye level, was his name. My dad’s youngest brother, my uncle Roger.
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I don’t recall much of what I was thinking at that point. I simply stood and stared at the name for what must have been a minute or more, but seemed an eternity. I reached out, slowly, with my right hand and delicately touched his chiseled-in-stone name, gently and slowly moving my fingers across to feel every detail of each letter. Tears began to well in my eyes.
My moment was interrupted by a call of “Grandpa! Look what I found!” My grandson, Austin, had found a lapel pin with the shaft broken off of the back side. I asked where he had found it. He said it was along the sidewalk, near the grass, as we had made the turn to walk down along the wall. He handed it to me and I told him I would take care of it.
I stared at the pin for a time, realizing what it was. I turned back to the wall to look at Uncle Roger’s name again. I saw my own reflection behind it. The ghostly transposition, the pin in my hand, and the name on the wall overwhelmed me. I dropped to my knees, removed my Durham Bulls baseball cap, and wept like a child. I said a prayer for my departed uncle, thanking God for allowing me to have known him, even for just those few, brief years in my childhood.
As I began to slowly compose myself, I looked at the pin in my hand. It was a miniature Bronze Star – a medal which was posthumously awarded to my uncle. I placed it at the foot of the wall section upon which his name is carved. Again, the tears came like a waterfall.
I stood, made the sign of the cross, and whispered, “Rest in peace, Uncle Roger.” It was only then that I noticed that my wife and the grandkids were standing quite some distance away at the top of the hill, looking back at the wall and me.
They wanted to give me my moment alone. I managed a strained smile at them as I wiped tears from my cheeks.
“Is grandpa crying?” asked Austin. My wife said, “Yes…he is.” She explained to him and his sister how much I had loved my uncle Roger. They seemed to understand as best as children of their ages can.
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I took a ‘rubbing’ of Roger’s name for a keepsake. As I was making the rubbing, I heard some other child’s voice off to my left say, “It’s just a bunch of names.” I smiled at the child’s innocent remark.
After all, what’s in a name?
The best song by a Vietnam vet that you’ve probably never heard, and brings back memories of my Uncle Roger to me.