I fought the Vietnam War in the mid 1960s from Marion, with little green plastic soldiers in a back yard on Hudson St., and with toy guns and knives along the wooded, brushy banks of Mud Creek behind our Elm St. home. My friends and I possessed the tactical genius to win every battle in minutes, our only wounds inflicted by poison ivy, and we always made it home in time for dinner. Well, almost always.
The news in 1969, when I was 11, that one of our own, 22-year-old Army Corporal Robert Boese of Marion, had been killed in action in South Vietnam, brought an abrupt end to the “fun” of playing war. The news literally hit close to home, as he’d married one of the Lentz sisters, who lived just a half a block away in the house where my dad grew up. Two of her sisters were regular playmates in our neighborhood games. I remember standing in the front yard looking toward that house, after hearing the news, feeling more awkward than anything else. It was a feeling that lingered a long time.
Eighteen years later, while on my first trip as an adult to Washington, I finally figured out what to feel. I was there for a conference, but in my spare time there was one “must do” for the trip — visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. All those years removed from my childhood and the war, I’m not sure why it felt so necessary, but it did, and I went.
I found Robert Boese in the memorial directory — “Panel 24W Line 081,” it said, was where I’d find his name on the wall.
It’s impossible to adequately describe the depth of emotion that ensued when I found his name on the panel that day. Suffice it to say it was profound beyond any expectation I had. I had never met Robert Lee Boese, but that day I did, there among the names of more than 58,000 of his comrades who died in Vietnam. It was a meeting touching enough that few Memorial Days since have passed without some thought of Corporal Boese, and a corresponding moment of reflection and appreciation.
I mean no disrespect to any of those from Marion County who lost their lives in service to our country by singling out Corporal Boese this Memorial Day. Whatever the war, whatever the circumstance, all paid the same ultimate price and deserve our honor and gratitude.
My experience with Corporal Boese illustrates what injects Memorial Day with continued vitality: personal connections to honored fallen service members.
Those personal connections, however, are dwindling. With each passing decade, more and more brothers, sisters, parents, and close friends of the 600,000 service members who died in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam have died, too. We feel the loss of every service member since those conflicts, but in comparison, their numbers have been thankfully low.
The impact is evident. Crowds that gather for official local observances are smaller and older as the years pass. The evolved tradition of decorating graves for Memorial Day, military or not, somewhat conceals the growing number of fallen service member graves that remain undecorated, save for the efforts of some dedicated patriotic volunteers.
Memorial Day became “Memorial Day weekend” 44 years ago, and a day of solemn remembrance became a getaway holiday weekend, the perfect time to celebrate the end of school and usher in summer. I can’t help but believe that Memorial Day has been somewhat diminished as a result.
As personal connections fade, recognizing the sacrifices of our fallen increasingly depends on collectively embracing patriotism. Service organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and their affiliated auxiliaries have all along been doing their parts to foster patriotism, including engaging schoolchildren in writing contests and group activities. Many other groups promote patriotism through supporting active duty personnel and their families.
Still, there’s no substitute for a personal connection that drives home the meaning of Memorial Day, and it’s worth going out of your way to find if you don’t have it. I’m not suggesting you go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to find your own panel and line for inspiration (though if you’re that direction, make a point of going).
The easiest way would be to attend a local Memorial Day observance. Get there early, find someone you don’t yet know, and ask them why they’re there. Learn about their story. Then share in the remembrance.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be reminded of it long before the next Memorial Day rolls around, because you connected with a neighbor, one you might notice around town now, when once they were just a stranger. Perhaps one of the best ways to honor our service members who have died is to honor the stories of the people who keep them alive in their hearts.
— david colburn