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The writing on the wall: one encounter at the Vietnam Memorial.

Because it was our first televised war, the men and women who fought in Vietnam were individualized. No longer merely chess pieces in an abstract strategic game, soldiers appeared in our homes nightly, engaged in flesh-and-blood carnage. As with previous wars, when the killing stopped we felt compelled to remember those who died. Memorials to our war dead are, after all, a ubiquitous piece of the American landscape. But the war in Vietnam is the first from which we collected the names of the dead on a single roll call in a single place.

With a magnetic power, the black wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington draws visitors to it. For those who come, there is almost always a need to tell the story of a familiar name they find inscribed there. It is part of some lesson we seem to have promised ourselves to learn from this memorial. One of my stories is the story of Homer L. Pease, a big red-headed tackle on our high school football team in Johnson City, Tennessee. In 1950, when I met him, Homer was finishing a high school education interrupted by World War II. He had lied about his age and at 15 had survived the Battle of the Bulge with the 101st Airborne. Homer pretty much controlled his side of the line in football games.

I left home the day I graduated from Science Hill High School to serve in the Navy during the Korean War, and then I went to college on the G.I. Bill. After college, on my first newspaper job, I uncovered a scheme to steal votes in an election. The stories led to several arrests, including that of Homer, my old teammate. Most of those involved were sentenced to jail, but because of his military record Homer was allowed to re-enlist instead. Later I heard he had a commission in the Green Berets, but then I lost track of him.

In the mid-1980s, when I worked in Washington for The New York Times, I paid my first visit to the Vietnam Memorial. The black wall seemed to grow organically out of the ground beside me as I slowly descended the path. Disoriented by the blur of names as I walked along, I stopped and tried to concentrate on the wall. Read a name, then a second. And then I found Homer again, etched there with the others in the polished black marble.
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Author:Kovach, Bill
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Words:407
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