Gone but not forgotten

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Alessandra N. Hurley
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
As a child, I remember being regaled by stories from my dad about how he joined the Army at the age of 17 because he wanted to go to Vietnam. This is the same kid who hitchhiked his way to Woodstock when he was 14. I always found it bespoke his character that while there were those dodging the draft, painting their toe nails pink and running away to Canada, my father actually volunteered to go to the jungle. They didn't send him, but he settled for jumping out of planes in the Airborne, instead.

My sister, Ginny, has also always held a particular fascination for Vietnam, but for different reasons. She has always been emotionally invested in ridding the world of social injustice. So to add to the stories from my dad who was around at the time Vietnam was happening and episodes about a mobile Army surgical hospital on television, my sister also watched anything she could find on the 10-year war that killed many young people who didn't want to go fight and die but were forced into it. My sister often spoke of the injustice they faced when they returned home- if they returned. The unfairness of the cruel treatment of being harassed and spit on when they got home was something Ginny felt very passionately about. Many times, they weren't even in one piece, either emotionally or physically, when they did return, she pointed out.

When I heard about an opportunity to volunteer for construction of the traveling Vietnam Wall at the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis, I, of course, jumped at the chance to get involved and help honor the young men and women- approximately nine female nurses- who were killed in Vietnam, by building a replica of the wall that acknowledges their personal sacrifices.

I wasn't the only one who answered the proverbial call. There were about 15 other Airmen and one civilian, from Ellsworth Air Force Base, who came out to construct this replica of a monument that acknowledges the innate meaning and value to all of those lives lost and to those who sacrificed so much.

There were also other displays at the Buffalo Chip honoring fallen servicemembers from the current campaign we're fighting in. As I walked past the display of 1,104 flags waving in the humid breeze of a hot August morning and display of dog tags each representing a human being who was killed over the last seven years, I realized any one of those flags or dog tags could just as easily have had my name etched onto it or belonged to one of the grateful faces I remember watching at Basic Military Training in my brother flight or in my own flight as our Instructors passed around the badges of accomplishment- our shiny rewards for having made it this far through BMT.

Although it was an honor to receive our official dog tags, I remember thinking as I looked around the room at the young men and women who held their tags up and carefully inspected their names, numbers, blood types and religious preferences, that these small rectangular pieces of metal we held in our hands were made with the sole intent of providing a way for identifying our remains on the battlefield.

Some of the volunteers who were with me that day, did recognize a few of the names on the tags.

"It hit me personally seeing the names of people I knew," said Tech Sgt. Kory Lindsey, 28th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller.

Many of the people we honored were people most of us had never met, and yet, by virtue of having vicariously lived the same emotional experiences we could all probably say we know them intimately. As regular people part of the same organization, we share the same feelings, same fears, same hopes, same dreams and for some of us who have deployed, same nightmares. Out of many, we become one.

"E Pluribus Unum."

I felt pride as I witnessed my fellow Airmen- people from different religious, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds- coming together for a common cause. When I held that panel in my hands with the names of those who were killed, they were as alive and real to me as the warm, hard surface of the panel on my skin- their hearts once beat as mine is beating now and my heart was saying "I know you- this is for you and for me."

Being in the military, it becomes clear, unlike any other clarity achieved in life, that no matter who we thought we were before, we are all the same.