Vietnam never had much of a personal reality for me while I was growing up. Born in 1968, I was too young to remember the bombings, the escalations, the protests, the fall of Saigon, and the unceremonious return of the GIs. No one among family or friends had been involved either. So when, in 1982, the Vietnam Memorial opened in Washington D.C. it didn’t mean all that much to me. I heard the stories of anguish and saw the pictures of grief that followed at the wall, but felt no personal connection. I don’t think I even visited the site when my family passed through DC in 1984. It just wasn’t part of my reality.
Ten years later, on a business trip in October 1994, I had another opportunity. I stopped by in the morning on my way to the Smithsonian. It was fairly quiet—a few visitors paused for moments of reflection, a few flowers and wallet photos were set below panels where friends and loved ones were named. By this time I’d learned something more about the history, personally knew a few veterans, and had a much deeper appreciation of the era. Yet still, the memorial was a wall of strangers, a monument for others before my time.
That feeling was about to change.
In the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History that afternoon I came to a room that hadn’t been there on my first visit ten years earlier. It was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection: thousands of items—yet a mere sampling—of those that had been left at the wall. I was stunned into silence. For what I saw there connected me for the first time to the very real people who had lost their lives in Vietnam. Not strangers with naught but a name, but husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, boyfriends, girlfriends, sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, friends, lovers. People who had weddings and graduations and celebrations of life. People who loved teddy bears and chocolate and root beer. People who had won honor on the battlefield and in the classrooms. People who had cherished dreams and hopes for their futures. People who were deeply loved…
And people who had lost it all in a southeast Asian jungle for the sake of an uncertain political policy.
This was a room of pain, of hurt, of despair, yet also of healing—just like the memorial. It was a room that harbored a collective agony of a nation trying to heal. And realizing that the true pain was orders of magnitude greater than this little room could express, I, too, shared in the grief. For some time I simply sat and wept. Vietnam was no longer a set of images from an encyclopedia or the History Channel—it was real and personal.
With now the deliberate steps of a pilgrim on approach to a sacred place, I returned to the wall. Standing there, I quietly gazed at the 58,209 names with gratitude for their sacrifice and for the opportunity they’ve given us to truly see the cost of war—to count casualties not by the thousands, but by the individual. I wondered about their lives, where they had come from and where they’d hoped to go. I thought of those they left behind and understood why so many tears had been shed against these black marble slabs.
Then I saw it.
My first name, Kraig with a K, is somewhat unconventional and not something I often see in print. Yet there it was, on the wall: panel 43E, line 44, belonging to Kraig Sewell Hogan of Sunnyvale, California, killed in Kien Tuong, South Vietnam, on March 7th, 1968, age 19.
I was there. I was there on the wall. And just above, on line 42, I also saw my middle name of Edward, belonging to Sgt. Edward Richard Cordeau, who died alongside Pvt. Hogan. I was really there.
I scanned around some more looking for anyone who shared my surname, but Brockschmidt is also quite rare. Consulting the name directory near the memorial, I saw that there were no Brockschmidts on the wall—but plenty of Brocks and plenty of Schmidts.
I took a rubbing sheet and a pencil from the supply bin next to the book and there, on the wall, I found myself: from the names of four soldiers I took a rubbing of my own, a reminder that part of me, in them, had died in Vietnam. It is a solemn truth of my life and perhaps all of us, part of our national legacy, part of the reality of war.
Yet by the same token, it’s also a bright reminder that those same soldiers are still alive in me, that all the men and women on the wall are still alive in us! Their willingness to sacrifice themselves is an equal, even a greater part of our national legacy! For while their specific deeds may be praised, vilified, or forgotten altogether, their courage—indeed, the courage of all who have defended the life we enjoy even in wars that may be neither popular nor just—continues to give strength to our nation and to every generation blessed to live here.
Certainly I cannot personally honor all those who fell, and continue to fall, in battle. They are still but strangers. It’s also unlikely, now that I’m in my late 30s, a new father, and untrained as a soldier, that I’ll be called to combat duty myself. Yet I can still honor their spirit and their sacrifice. Not by decorating my car or neighborhood trees with yellow ribbons and “Support Our Troops” insignia, nor by merely enjoying the peace and freedom for which they fought. These are just superficialities.
The real honor is to be expressed through my own courage—courage in the battles I face with forces less lethal than bullets and bombs but no less a threat to the freedoms we so cherish. Do I seek to silence other voices when they disagree, or do I have the courage to give them the freedom to express their thoughts? Do I have the courage to honor the outcome of a democratic election even if I voted in the minority? Do I have the courage to allow others to live as they feel inspired, to share with them the joy of being alive instead of drawing lines around our differences? Do I have the integrity to be honest in my dealings with others, to adhere to higher principles when others are willing to cast them aside? Do I have the strength to give without expectation of return? And do I have the fortitude to pull myself out of despair, to try once more in the face of hopelessness, to act when others merely complain?
For each of these choices—and hundreds of others—entails a sacrifice of self for a greater purpose. These choices are not always easy. They might not be comfortable. They might even bring great inconvenience, hardship, or loss, like the jungles of Vietnam or the desert sands of the Middle East.
But making those tough choices is the essence of heroism. It’s what joins each of us to our men and women in uniform. Making those choices is also the essence and duty of citizenship, for it’s what unites us all in our common love of liberty and the freedom to fully explore our potential as human beings.
While we may yet debate the means, securing these freedoms remains ever the same goal, and ever worth the sacrifice. They are what we stand forever ready to defend, both as the United States and the united hearts of America.