Above and Beyond – Honoring our nation’s veterans

It was always about the names.

When I first got involved with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the most visited memorial in our nation’s capitol, our goal was to honor the 58,241 names of the men and women killed in Viet-Nam. We were determined that the names should not be forgotten, nor lost, in American history as the most lasting sacrifice of a tumultuous war that divided our nation. At the dedication of the memorial in 1982, the healing process truly began as the Wall brought honor and dignity to all who died and served our country. Each soldier killed has his or her name equally displayed without rank or date of birth. All were soldiers who went “above and beyond” and gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

Aside from Washington, D.C., the soldiers names engraved on the memorial are permanently honored in only one other location. The “Above and Beyond” exhibit, unveiled in 2001 at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, is comprised of dog tags, one for each serviceman and woman killed. Suspended from a fine line, each dog tag sits exactly one inch apart, allowing them to move “like a living thing with shifts in the air current.”

Hung from the ceiling in a two-story atrium, the design including all 58,241 names is haunting, breathtaking and memorable. As people enter, the breeze waves the metal dog tags creating the faintest sound of chimes, evoking a sudden silence, spiritually and unspoken dignity within the space.

The museum has been visited by thousands of people and provides one other place for family and friends to honor and re-member. This award-winning design has become an instrument to educate people about sacrifice in war. As one observer noted, visiting students “snap to silence and their jaws drop” stunned by the power of the exhibit. The museum has become a unique and important place for veterans of all wars to display poignant and healing art. However, the museum has lost its lease and needs to relocate. As a result, the soldiers’ dog tags may be boxed up and placed in storage “until further notice.” Such action would be unfortunate for our veterans and our nation, for it is still about the names.

As George Washington cautioned after our war for independence, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war… shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars are treated and appreciated by our nation.”

As the country engages in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many more have made the ultimate sacrifice. While there will be efforts to permanently honor the names of the more than 5,000 soldiers killed in these conflicts, we must continue to respect service to country and take care of our troops returning home. As a nation, we must not sink into the amnesia for which it may long, as reflected upon by Philip Caputo in “A Rumor of War.” Indeed, our country does need public displays and memorials so that we never forget the names of those veterans who have gone “above and beyond” for our nation.

For further information e-mail gibbsron@msn.com or visit www.nvam.org