Written by By Ben McMillen. Originally Published in the Greene County Messenger on October 6th 2017
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall – the 6-foot-tall, 288-foot-long replica of the Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. that was recently displayed at the Greene County Fairgrounds – was an unforgettable experience for the many people who visited it. The following is a personal reflection from a Waynesburg resident who visited the Wall with his family and discovered its significance to those who served in the Vietnam War, including his own father.)
My 13-year-old daughter said she would get extra credit for school if she visited the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall that was coming to Greene County. She was tasked with having her paper signed by somebody who “looked important.” I guess that was just to prove she was there.
So, I decided to make it a family outing. We were all excited about it. I went with my oldest daughter, my sister, her boyfriend and my father, a Vietnam war veteran. I had heard that there was to be an opening ceremony with local officials, speeches and music playing. I naively planned it like a field trip and my dad would be the tour guide.
My knowledge of my father’s time in the service is limited. My dad never talked about it. He appreciates the occasional “thank you for your service” from his kids and grandkids on Veterans Day, but that was about the extent of my dad acknowledging that he was in the Army in 1968. I’ve asked him a handful of times about his experience in a country over 8,000 miles away, but the answer was always the same: “Not much to talk about.” When pressed a little harder, his reply would always get a bit more direct: “You would not understand, nor would I want you to.” And he leaves it at that. He never gets upset that the questions are asked. It comes across as if he appreciates you wanting to know but he simply changes the subject and moves on.
My dad is a strong, hard working man. Straight to the point. Get the job done, no excuses kind of guy. But he is also funny! Cracking jokes and smiling. Always positive and encouraging. Never gets frazzled. He treats everyone with respect, even when they don’t deserve it. He always seems to make the right choices. Helps others often while never seeking recognition. I look up to my dad as someone who has this world and our place in it all figured out. He is the definition of a good man. That’s how I see my dad. The idea of him serving in the military is just not something I’ve put much thought into. Why would I? He never talks about it.
So the day came to visit the Wall. I did some research before we went so that I would know the statistics and numbers. There would be over 58,000 names on display. There are only 38,000 residents total in Greene County, to put that number in perspective. I kept thinking that this visit was going to be informative and educational for my daughters.
We decided to all meet at the tent that was set up to help visitors find names on the Wall. I guess I didn’t really think about my dad actually looking for anyone. Up until this point, I had no idea that my dad lost friends in the war. He never mentioned them before. That was probably the first sign that I was a little ignorant to what the Wall actually means to those who served in Vietnam.
We walked up to the help table with my dad, who was unusually quiet. He gave the very organized and helpful lady three names. In return, she gave us the panel and line number where we could find each one.
My sister and I a little too eagerly took the list of names and started our search on this massive, nearly 300-foot-long display. At first, it seemed like a game. My older sister and I are in our 40’s but still very competitive. Who would get to tell Dad first that we found the names?
The first name we looked for was a young man from Tennessee, a guy my dad affectionately described as crazy and loud. My sister found him first. She won this round. His name was near the bottom of Panel 14 East, Line 117 – just one of the 140 panels of this impressive mobile monument. Obviously very excited, we showed my dad, who stepped up to get a closer look. But then he paused, eventually stepping back. After a few seconds, he more cautiously stepped up a second time and knelt down in front of the wall. My dad, with his hard-working 68-year-old hands, ran his thumb slowly over the letters....
And then it happened. I’m not sure who noticed it first, but it hit my sister and me like a ton of bricks. We were not here for my daughter’s extra credit for school. This was not just something to do with the family on a Thursday evening. It was not a field trip, and my father was certainly no tour guide. My dad, our family rock, was hurting.
How did we miss this? How did we not even remotely consider what this would mean for him? His shoulders started to tremble, his neck twitching, visibly trying to hold back emotions but failing. His left hand covering his mouth while his right hand felt every letter of his dead friend’s name. We had never seen Dad cry before. Not at our weddings, not at the birth of his grandchildren, not even family funerals. Never.
After a few minutes, he composed himself and stood up. My sister and I quietly went on to find the next name on the list. This time it had a whole new meaning. Neither of us cared who found the next soldier. This was NOT a game. It was now very clear why we came. My father never visited the original wall in Washington, D.C. He never took the time to keep up with old Army buddies. He has been too busy taking care of us to dwell on the past.
We could see that my dad needed this moment. We found the next name etched into the wall representing the life of young servicemen who fought next to my father. This was the guy my dad described as one of the best men he ever met. He described him in such a way that I pictured the possibility of them still being friends after almost 50 years.
He was from Columbus, Ohio. We found his name on Panel 16 West and – strangely enough – also Line 117. The same reaction overcame my father. He knelt next to his name, his body trembling while he ran his hand over the letters. This time, my sister knelt next to him while I had my hand on his shoulder. Neither of us had a clue how to console a man who we have never seen get upset about anything.
After a few minutes, we set off to find the last name – Dad’s cousin from Brownsville. We found him on Panel 50 West, Line 48. His cousin died in action at the age of 21, just TWO WEEKS before my dad was to deploy for his own tour of duty. I don’t have the words to describe how that must have affected my father and his family.
Because my dad never talked about his time in Vietnam, I honestly never thought about it. Picturing my dad with a gun fighting a war is not an image I have of him. I can only assume that was his plan all along. My dad fought for this great country of ours for one year and 53 days. He came home and continued to protect our family ever since in ways we never noticed. I can’t imagine carrying that kind of burden and knowledge of war and never speaking of it.
I personally never served in our nation’s military. So I will not pretend to understand what my dad went through or the sacrifices made by all veterans. Because of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall that came to Greene County, I now have of a heightened sense of gratefulness for the freedoms we take for granted and the ultimate price that was paid of the men and women who never got to come home like my father.
I am also extremely proud and appreciative of men like my dad, who came home and lived their lives to become great men we can all look up to.
I still do not know what my dad did in the military, and I’ll probably never ask him again. In the end, it was my father who signed my daughter’s extra credit paper for school. Nobody else in that moment looked more qualified or felt more important to our family than my dad – Private First Class Jack S. McMillen, United States Army.
Written by Ben McMillen. Ben is Greene County Resident and the owner of McMillen Photography in Waynesburg PA.
Photos below of Private First Class Jack S. McMillen