‘They all deserve to be remembered’
My columns frequently revolve around my reverence for our troops and veterans, and my concern that they shoulder the risks to keep the rest of us comfortable while we do nothing. When we send our young men and women to war nowadays, we don’t even pay for it, we send the bill to our children.
Jim Chambers, a Fayetteville reader, contacted me months ago to express his similar feelings, and after I mentioned my daughter’s illness in a column he kindly let me know she is in his daily prayers. Jim contacted me again after reading last week’s column, “The Wall That Heals.”
He stays mostly at home, devoted to the care of his wife, Anne, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.
My visit to meet him was overdue; I met him in his home a few days ago.
Jim Chambers was a soldier in WWII. About one month after D-Day in 1944, his 8th Division unit would land on Omaha beach in France and fight their way inland. By then, Allied forces held just a few square miles of territory.
Jim vividly remembers how they prepared on the ship, how heavily they were packed with gear, weapons and ammo. Jim said when they climbed over the side to step down the heavy rope nets to the landing craft bobbing in the sea below, if a man slipped or lost his grip and fell in the water, “Well, we just never saw him again.”
After he returned home from the war, Jim Chambers became a minister and a chaplain here in Georgia. He said when he was ministering to soldiers he would seek out the lowest ranking guy who looked lost and miserable, the young man who likely wanted more than anything to just go home. Jim said that’s who needed him most, and he knew exactly how a man like that felt.
What is this WWII vet’s connection to The Wall at the Vietnam Memorial?
“Too many people are unaware of the hell and suffering that preceded those names being displayed on The Wall. Most of those names were the young sons of ordinary people, whether prosperous or poor or a broken home, young men who didn’t know what they were facing or why they were there.”
“I was one of them in WWII, a run-of-the-mill kid who joined to get three meals a day. I thought I was military-wise after six weeks of spit and polish and a 10-day pass to get married. Then in July of 1944 an LST dropped me in the water off Omaha beach ... Some time in August, after crawling part of the way, we reached Dinard, France.”
He left out countless details of fighting and dying and his eyes drifted off to the distant past.
“We went in with some small arms fire but we were soon surrounded by a large garrison of German soldiers and pinned down for 10 days. About half our men were killed or wounded. I was only wounded but I did learn all about blood and pieces of bodies along the highway. History dubbed us ‘The Lost Battalion.’ Those memories are still clear.
“Long after the war I had occasion to visit the Vietnam Memorial and to be reminded that every name on that wall represents a real person who died at the call of his country, a life cut short, no home-coming to a wife, no children, no career. I found the names on that wall of young men I had ministered to as their pastor, and later I had conducted their funeral when their body came home.
“Sometimes in those military funerals there were fewer than six people in attendance besides the military detail. I would wait at the church in vain as I expected family and friends to gather. The casket in place and the hour at hand, I would play some appropriate music and do a simple military service. The detail would lead us to the burial ground. Taps and a few words would end the story of another fallen soldier. And that should not be so.”
My point in last week’s column was that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan should have a memorial, a place that belongs to them, a place that connects them, a place that honors the service and sacrifice of those who died doing their duty. The power of the Vietnam Memorial is an illustration of why we should help them build a suitable memorial.
Jim strongly agreed. We talked about politicians and presidents who involve our country far too casually these days in wars that cost American lives while the rest of the country has no stake in it.
What burns fiercely in Jim’s heart is his memory of the ones he knew who died in his war and mine. It is far more important to him than the two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars he earned in WWII, and he emphasized his point while struggling to keep his composure, “Every one of those boys deserves to be remembered, just as much as a president!”
I don’t know anyone who could say it better than Jim Chambers of Fayetteville.
[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City and writes columns occasionally for The Citizen. He has authored a book, “Strength & Honor: America’s Best in Vietnam.” His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]