ELLIJAY, Ga. – Have you been to the wall?
Ellijay is host, this week, to a traveling wall, a nearly full-scale replica of the polished black monument that stands in Washington, D.C. It stands 360 feet long and bears the names of the men lost to the Vietnam War. The wall is open to any and all who wish to come see it at any time.
That’s right, the wall is available 24 hours a day through Sunday evening. The American Legion Riders (ALR) Post 82 has dedicated members standing guard at the wall the entire time. As you visit the wall at the Ellijay Lion’s Club Fairgrounds on Old Highway 5, you can seek help from Lion’s Club members between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day as they will have books to help you find certain names on the wall.
The wall arrived in Ellijay Wednesday afternoon. It was escorted by 65 motorcycles and their riders from both Post 82 and Post 49 of the ALR. They were welcomed to the site by members of both Gilmer and Ellijay’s emergency services.
As a part of this Memorial Day weekend, the event also hosts military vehicles donated from the North Georgia Military Museum as well as a temporary cemetery.
That last part may have caught you off guard. Indeed, citizens of Gilmer County are used to seeing the crosses on the side of Old Highway 5 twice a year during Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. This year, however, you won’t find any crosses for Gilmer’s Vietnam soldiers on the road. Instead, you need to visit these crosses erected in a place of honor at the fairgrounds.
Still more, each day that the wall stands in Ellijay, it will host an opening prayer at noon, and a closing rendition of “Taps” at the end of the day, 6 p.m.
It truly is a sight to behold as both veterans and citizens mix together in their recognition at the wall. A simple replica has brought a piece of the wall’s significance to Ellijay. One thing you will notice immediately as you enter the gate is a thickness in the air. It isn’t the weather and it’s not the heat.
It is altogether right and honorable to speak words of thanks and honor to those who have served, but no deeper thanks can be felt than in the silence of remembrance.
Many attempt to assign a word or a phrase to the feeling. Even more try to offer some semblance of honor and thanks to those who have served. Especially at this time of the year, we as a people want to achieve something to give back, as if we could.
Meaning. Meaning is what we want, to touch something deeper than our daily life. To achieve something greater that could begin to equal that of what they have given. At its core, it is a sad, vain attempt to acknowledge a debt we can never understand. Few have come close to encapsulating the gap that exists. Songs like “Proud to be an American” and words like those of General George S. Patton evoke the emotion, but still don’t quite reach the goal.
“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God such men lived.” – George S. Patton
Here we are again, trying to explain an appreciation that can’t be put into words. Still trying to capture a meaning that eludes us more and more with each war.
The only place I have ever felt I truly touched that meaning was in Washington D.C. at Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall.
Especially if you’ve never been to D.C., I could not stress enough how much you should stop into this tribute in Ellijay. It’s a tribute to a tribute, but it is something more than that.
Cross Ellijay today and you’ll see it. Drive past and you will notice the flags, just sticks and cloth. You’ll see men with patches, hats, and canes. What is it but just old things and old memories?
Such thoughts are for the unworthy. For a nation craving meaning, we move to fast past things worth the moments. When you see only sticks and cloth, you miss the truth.
The truth is offered between the flags, and between the men and women. It is found between each note of the bugle. Look past the names to see the three sets of both father and son on the wall. You can understand the 33,103 soldiers that were 18 years old. What is harder to believe is the 12 names on the wall that were 17 years old. Harder still to think of the 5 that were 16 years old.
The unbelievable point is the one name on the wall that belonged to a 15-year-old boy. What a difference three years makes.
Yet, it’s still not enough. Numbers carry weight to the sacrifice, but one can’t feel the numbers. Not when written on a page or screen. A person doesn’t feel 58,272 names etched into a wall until you stand in front of each one. A name is just a name until you see a woman sobbing into her arms, barely able to hold a pencil as she desperately tries to scratch a piece of paper over a name carved into black granite. You will never understand how much she hates that wall because it’s a prison that won’t give her father back to her. Yet, she visits it every year.
Not until you sit there, stuck in the silence so solid that it simply drowns out the noise, when it finally hits you that each name is a soul, can you understand. And you still don’t know how to say thank you. Because how could that feeling ever be summed up in two simple words? How could you say it the right way? How could it ever mean what you want it to mean?
It’s not just a wall. It’s not just a day. It’s not just black stone. It is the melted essence of that meaning that we as a nation give it, marred black by the collective agony of a nation of people remembering.
Let it pierce you. Let it sink in, the weight of nearly sixty thousand souls. Each one bearing down on you to make meaning of their sacrifice.
Now, understand that’s just one war.
Let me ask you again…
Have you been to the wall?
A father to his son…
I am writing this to you that one day you might understand, but now you’re only 7. You asked me recently why I put my hand over my heart when someone’s singing the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance. I couldn’t really think of how to explain it in just a few words so I told you that it was respect and honor for our country. I wonder if you still remember asking?
Now, I hope you can fully grasp the gravity of what I am about to explain. There are soldiers, we call them that because they are more than men, who serve our country. We didn’t ask, they volunteered. They all give some of themselves, some give all.
They suffer through hell, they haven’t died yet. The fight on foreign soil, some haven’t been home in years. They give up who they are to become something more, something we need. These Soldiers are our military, they follow orders of our government. It doesn’t matter if we are defending our nation or fighting in a world at war, they fight because it is necessary. When they come home, they have a way of showing respect to each other, a way of saying thank you, a way of saying I love you, of saying I am here for you. It is called a salute. It’s a very simple gesture, but it means so very much, so much more than you and I could ever understand.
We are not Soldiers. We cannot possibly fathom the unquestionable depth of service, brotherhood, love, and commitment these Soldiers make to each other. It doesn’t matter whether we agree on why they are fighting or where, what matters is this. We as civilians play a part in the military. We as civilians are required by honor and duty to serve these Soldiers at home. When they come back, I don’t want to salute them. I don’t mean to say it’s bad, but I understand enough to know it will never be the same.
I understand enough to know that I need something different to show how incredibly thankful I am. How my love, respect, and devotion to them runs deeper than a vast ocean. That, my beloved son, is why I cover my heart, I am trying so very desperately to show a Soldier that, though I may not know his name or where he is from, I hold him deep in my heart.
I do it in hopes that some Soldier may see me with my hand over my heart, and he would know that I cherish his sacrifice, and they all will be with me forever.
I hope this helps,