I’m listening to Studio 360′s fascinating radio piece, American Icons: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I recommend it highly as a commentary on the memorial itself, but moreover as a reminder of how controversial the war was and how poorly remembered its veterans were for far too long.
When Philippe and I visited the wall in 2003, we were moved by the somber yet elegant design. In the aftermath of 9/11, war was, of course, on our mind. But, daily counts of the deaths of “troops” and “civilians” had begun to dehumanize the very human toll of a war that was being waged so far away. Seeing the names of Americans who fell in a war to defend democracy on the other side of the world drove home the somber fact that our contemporaries were doing the same.
At around the same time, our friend Don, a Vietnam veteran, started telling us some of the stories of his four tours of Vietnam. In the first tour, as a draftee, he was one of a handful (or maybe the only?) of his brigade to survive. He volunteered for his subsequent three tours out of a sense of guilt, duty, a job left undone. His service took him to Cambodia–unofficially–and in performing “black ops” he was asked to commit crimes in the name of his government. This part of his service was never officially acknowledged. Like the many veterans whose sacrifice was anonymous before the Wall was erected, Don’s service was invisible.
Shortly after our trip to D.C., Don proudly showed us his certificate of pardon from President Bush — his “illegal” service had been recognized and forgiven. Don is just one of many veterans of the Vietnam War, and other wars, who we have been privileged to meet through our friendship with Jimmy Proffitt. As I wrote on Memorial Day, Jimmy is a Vietnam-era Marine who was injured stateside and never saw combat. Jimmy is, simply put, the salt of the earth.
More than 25 years ago, Jimmy and his wife found themselves with leftover Thanksgiving dinner. They made about 30 sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and headed to downtown Chicago. Once there, they found homeless men and distributed the food. Recognizing the incredible need, Jimmy and Virginia continued to make sandwiches for Chicago’s homeless. Every Sunday, with the exception of Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day weekends, they circle Chicago’s loop with their small army of helpers. The Chicago Homeless Sandwich Project today distributes more than 1,500 bagged lunches each week. They also provide hot and cold beverages, clothing, and a ready smile to the increasing number of homeless on our city’s streets.
We have been privileged to ride with Jimmy many times, handing out sandwiches and seeing firsthand the need he fills. Jimmy tells us that more than 75% of the homeless on our city streets are veterans, men (and now women) who have come home from war so damaged that they cannot hold a job, or who lost everything while they were serving (job, home, family) and have not been able to get back on their feet.
Jimmy was called to serve his country, and while his own life has been modest compared to many more visible philanthropists, he may be the most philanthropic person I know. Next to the hospital that saved our child, The Sandwich Project is our favorite charity and I encourage you to click the link above and learn how you can support him.
As one of the commentators just said in the background as I write, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial serves as a mirror. The names on the Wall force to see ourselves, to recognize and individualize the real human loss, the loss of fathers, mothers, brothers, sons, sisters, daughters, friends. They are no longer ”our brave servicemen and women who gave their lives.” Each one has a name and a story and a life left behind. Tomorrow their comrades, including Don and Jimmy, will gather at the Wall and read their names in remembrance and reverence.
As you shop Veterans’ Day sales and enjoy your day off (if you get one!), take a moment to thank the men and women who serve our country today and every day. You may not agree with the wars they are asked to fight, and you may not choose to serve as they do, but we should all be grateful for their dedication and sacrifices.