A well-traveled replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall behind him Friday, retired U.S. Army Col. Jack Jacobs paid homage to the 58,195 names of the fallen etched on its smooth, dark surface.
“We fight to defend the country, and we fight to accomplish the mission. But we will never forget that most of all, we fight for each other,” said Jacobs, a heavily decorated soldier who served two tours in Vietnam, ultimately receiving the Medal of Honor.
Not forgetting the sacrifice of those who fought and died during the Vietnam War — along with millions of others who gave their all in the nation’s wars — was a thread weaved through Friday’s dedication of the Vietnam Memorial Plaza at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center.
More than 800 people, along with a freshly graduated class of 160 Infantrymen and a Marine Corps detachment of about 100, were there for the event officially recognizing the new home — on loan for at least five years from Dignity Memorial — of the replica of the hallowed wall that has stood in Washington since 1982.
Located just off Heritage Walk on the east side of the National Infantry Museum, the wall stands there after being part of a mobile display for more than two decades. It has visited more than 200 U.S. cities.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, himself a Vietnam veteran who picked up three Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in combat, introduced Jacobs with a mention of more recent history.
“I like to remind people that the soldiers who have fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces, have suffered 60,000 some odd killed and wounded, because we had a real war going on for 12 years,” said McCaffrey, well known for his successful “left hook” attack against Iraqi forces as commander of the 24th Infantry Division during Operation Desert Storm in the first Gulf War.
Jacobs, a successful businessman and military analyst for NBC News, drove home the point that those lucky enough to serve in a free country “owes it something” in the form of service.
Perhaps in a nod to the current downsizing of the U.S. military following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — both launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil — he said a country should always have more resources than it needs at its disposal, just in case.
“There is no such thing as sufficient resources to accomplish (a task or mission),” Jacobs said. “One of the reasons is we never can tell in advance what’s going to happen down the road. We can’t predict the future. And we better be ready for just about anything. If we are not — with adequate resources just in case — we’re going to be unhappily surprised farther down the road.”
With birds chirping on a bright sunny day, the retired colonel remarked that many of the 58,000 individuals listed on the wall behind him weren’t able to “grow up” to be parents and grandparents, “most of which has to do with the inability to determine what our objectives were (in Vietnam), and to give to them satisfactory and adequate resources ... which means for all the greater reason that we have to not forget them.”
Jacobs then looked out over the new infantrymen standing at attention on the sidewalk and congratulated them for their decision to defend nearly 320 million Americans “in an arena in which there are great threats and a changing and difficult environment.”
The ceremony featured the laying of a wreath at the center of the memorial wall by former POWs and a group of retired military officers, three of them Medal of Honor recipients.
It concluded with a stirring 21-gun salute, fired in three volleys by seven soldiers, and the mournful playing of “Taps,” followed a moment of silence.
Afterward, Rick Roth, a Vietnam veteran who served two years with the Marines and now lives in Alpharetta, Ga., scanned the memorial wall. He was looking for the names of James Rice, who died next to him in combat, and Michael Voss, who was killed by friendly fire.
“It’s not that emotional to me from a memory standpoint, because I’ve already been to the main wall” in Washington, he said. “Really, what it brings back is fond memories, fond memories of these guys, not the bad times, but the fun times we had. That’s what I enjoy the most.”
Also in attendance was a Georgia group of Patriot Guard Riders, an organization formed in 2005 to protect funeral mourners from protests generated by Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, whose controversial pastor died recently. This day, dressed in leather chaps and vests, the motorcyclists were serving as a flag-bearing color guard, lining the walkways leading to the memorial wall.
Among them was retired Lt. Col. Will Duke, a Columbus resident who did not serve in Vietnam, being commissioned an officer in 1975 as the conflict ended.
“I worked with a lot of Vietnam veterans, in my early platoons and companies that I was in, and I got a sense of how much sacrifice they had gone through,” he said. “It was one of the longest wars we’ve ever had, under the most difficult conditions, with in some cases very little support from the American people ... just an incredible sacrifice was made.”
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Orson Swindle, who was a prisoner of war for 6 years and 4 months in Hanoi, after being shot down as a fighter pilot, beseeched the public to not forget those who paid for the nation’s freedom.
“It’s just so damn important,” he said. “Some wise person once said — I think it was Ronald Reagan — this beautiful system that we enjoy today, that we inherited, was paid for by millions. And if we are so disinterested in the future as to forget who gave it to us, we’re going to lose it. And that’s what’s important.”
Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commanding general of Fort Benning’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, opened the dedication by noting the uniqueness of those who have worn a military uniform through the years. He called the memorial wall a great piece of living history.
“It’s a reminder to us that our profession is unique,” said McMaster, who will soon receive his third star and depart this summer for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command in Virginia.
“It’s unique for a lot of reasons,” he said. “But one of the most precious ones, given the memorial behind me here, is it is really the only profession in which the man or woman next to you is willing to give everything, including their own lives for you.”