Thank You, Jimmy
It was the first time in my life that I knew there was such a thing as death.
My first encounter with death was not because of the loss of a grandparent, a parent, or a sibling, although I have experienced all of those losses in years since. It was, instead, as I remember it, because of the left-hand bottom corner of the front page of the Winston-Salem Journal, the newspaper that was delivered daily to my home when I was growing up.
I don't really know exactly when I first noticed, but at some point, almost fifty years ago, I read a list of names in that small section (that unfortunately grew over time) and asked my parents about it.
"Those are the names of local boys who recently died in Vietnam."
I honestly believe that was my first introduction to the reality of death.
Over the years, I have visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or as it is sometimes referred to, "The Wall," on several occasions. Each time was moving, but I will never forget the emotions of my very first time.
It was the summer of 1986, less than two years after the memorial was completed and maybe a month after the death of my sister. My parents believed it was important that they take my other two sisters and me out of town on a trip. Not the best of ideas, but it's hard to fault them... and this really isn't about my family.
I can still remember arriving at "The Wall" with my parents, and my father almost immediately going to the book to try to find the particular panel of a certain name. I almost asked who he was looking for, but then I remembered.
I never knew Jimmy. I'm not even sure my father ever knew Jimmy, but we began going to church with his mother and father and brother not too long after Jimmy's death.
As I browsed the internet earlier this afternoon, I discovered that Jimmy... rather, PFC Jimmy Roger Westmoreland with the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army died on April 8, 1969, less than three months after his tour began.
Some fellow soldiers who served with him have left personal comments on the "virtual wall" through the years. One described him as a "quiet, baby-faced kid." Another wrote, "I remember the first time I saw you, I thought to myself, 'This guy should be in Junior High instead of Vietnam, but I see we were both about the same age."
Jimmy was 20 years old.
On that day with my parents, seventeen years later, as they found Jimmy's name on the wall, they wept... not because of their relationship with him, because again, I'm not sure they even knew him. Looking back all these years later, I believe that their tears flowed out of an unsolicited bond with his parents and a common grief for a lost child.
I read a statistic recently that really struck me. During World War II, 12% of our population served in the Armed Forces. However today, less than 1% of our current population is serving or has ever served in our military.
Gala True, of the Department of Veteran Affairs says, "That small figure influences the way the general public thinks about the cost of conflict."
To be clear, this is not a pro-war post. That issue can be debated in other circles at other times by people far more qualified to do so than me.
But it is a pro-honor post.
The Apostle Paul wrote...
"Give everyone what you owe him... if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor." (Romans 13:7 NIV84)
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the most solemn of American holidays... a day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice while defending our nation.
It is a day to remember Jimmy, and the more than 1.1 million other men and women who have given their lives for those who, in most-part, they didn't know either... for those who are still giving their lives for you and me.
Join me in giving to each of them what we owe them - our respect and honor. The reality is, we owe them so much more than we could ever repay.
Since that summer with my parents, with every subsequent visit that I have made to D.C., if I find myself near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I stop and look for Jimmy's name myself.
I never knew him, but I never want to forget him.
Thank you, Jimmy.