Rachel Harris stood in front of panel 17 E, camera in hand. She was erect, almost at attention, her posture emanating a certain reverence for the moment, for the place. She stared at the names on the traveling Vietnam War memorial tribute with its replica black granite look and the names etched in white, names of young men, gone too soon, in the service of a not always appreciative country.
Did you know someone who served, who didn’t come home, she’s asked.
Her two-word response told all.
“My husband,” she replied.
PFC Manuel Artlan Hicks, Jr. died in Vietnam on March 31, 1967, of injuries he suffered two weeks earlier. It was five days past his 20th birthday. The kid from Chattanooga, Tenn., donned his uniform on Dec. 5, 1966.
“We were married for six months,” Harris said. They’d been together for three years, since high school. “He was a wonderful person. He was a fantastic dancer. He was an only child. That was sad.”
Harris was just one of several thousand Tallahassee area residents who honored veterans by viewing the Cost of Freedom Tribute, which is dominated by what is billed as the largest traveling Vietnam War Memorial. Coordinator John Barron said the aim is to bring the tribute to communities and to give veterans a chance to see the names on the wall.
“Many will never make it to Washington,” Barron said. “We’re paying tribute to those who have worn the uniform.”
For most people, they will just be names on a granite wall, but in essence they’ve always been more than that. Each represented a father, son, brother, uncle or cousin to some family, somewhere. At such events people trot out the clichés about ultimate sacrifice, freedom and dying, which cheapens the experience. But there is nothing cheap about the price of war, of the Vietnam War. The more than 58,000 dead are only part of the human toll. The story of the wall doesn’t include the lost potential, the what-might-have-beens, the babies not conceived, the broken and tormented men who left irretrievable parts of themselves on the battlefield.
In that casualty number is the untold carnage within each state, each county, each town that received the news, that bore the brunt of the pain those years ago: 1,950 casualties from Florida, including 26 from Tallahassee. Places like Texas, (3,414) and California (5,575) gave even more.
So on a Sunday afternoon as Veterans Day beckoned, men with gray beards and veteran baseball caps and badges strolled around the replica wall and exhibits displaying information about wars from the War of Independence to the war on terror. Lee Greenwood crooned from the loudspeaker. Miniature flags fluttered at the base of the exhibit. This was not just for the converted, the veterans.
“People need to bring their kids. There are kids in school who don’t know what POW-MIA stands for,” said Rick Fulford, a veteran who served on missions in Grenada, Panama and first Iraq war. “We’re trying to get into the Tallahassee schools to teach the kids patriotism.”
Fulford wasn’t talking about a video game; he was talking about love of country, love of freedom, instilling values of what it truly means to be American. Even though Fulford didn’t use the word sacrifice, it must have been in his mind. The names of three of Fulford’s uncles are etched on the wall.
Rachel Harris knows about sacrifice, too. The Vietnam War made her a widow long before she even learned to be a wife. She has since remarried, but a piece of Harris, a piece of her heart will always be on that wall: Panel 17 E. Row 79.
Andrew J. Skerritt lives in Tallahassee, Fla. He is the author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. Follow him at @andrewjskerritt. Courtesy of Context Florida.