I should have had the courage to go down to the ceremony at the Traveling Vietnam Wall Memorial on the Park Strip last week. I wanted to go. But I didn't. All I could do was remember a few years back when I was in DC and finally found the courage to go to the Wall there.
I'd just come from the Holocaust Museum and figured I couldn't possibly feel much worse so I might as well take those last few steps to the Wall. (BTW, a double header of the Holocaust Museum and the Vietnam War Memorial is not something I'd recommend.)
I got to the Wall and looked for Paul. It had been almost 40 years since his death. Surely I could handle seeing his name there.
But I couldn't. Even forty years later, the sight of his name caused me to burst into a sob I'd not be aware was even in me. I put my hand out and touched his name and it just made the pain worse.
Where did the pain come from? Paul wasn't a relative, a lover or a bosom buddy. He was my cousin's best friend and, as such, became a routine part of my college years. We hung together. Did some partying together - though not much of that since he and my cousin were in Valley Forge Military Academy. We ate lots of meals together and shared thoughts the way you do when you're young and think you have the world figured out.
Paul came from a military family. He had no doubt that was his future. Sadly, that future didn't last long. He died within days of arriving in Vietnam. As someone who had fervently debated the wisdom of that war and actively protested against it, his death cut deeply. I still could see no rhyme or reason for it. Part of me wanted to find a way to view his death as not a terrible waste of a young man with a bright future. Part of me just grew angrier with the old men in Washington who seemed to send young men to war without a second's hesitation.
It took me a long, long time to figure out why Paul's death was not a complete waste. Because if there is a reason his death was not a travesty, it's found within him, just as it is found within every member of our military who sacrifice their lives or limbs in service to their country. Paul believed in his country and believed in his service to his country. He was an honorable man who was trying to do what he believed to be the honorable thing. For whatever reason his country was engaged in war, as a member of our military his job was to show up and do his best. And he did.
As we celebrate America's birthday today, we need to remember that even though the pictures no longer make the front pages of our papers or the headlines on TV news, we are at war. Young men and women are dying on a daily basis to fulfill promises made by yet another group of mostly old men in DC. The majority goes out each day with the honor of our country as their purpose. They have sworn to protect us -- you and me and our kids and pets and suburban lawns. If doing that means going a world away from their families and fighting in a war that increasingly seems endless and futile, then that's what they will do.
I often wonder what Paul's life would have been like if he'd lived. Would he remember me from those long, wonderful weekends of hanging out at 336 Sylvania Avenue, watching the seasons change, griping about papers due, books to be read, and a war to be debated? I'll never know. What I do know is that the pain of his loss simply refuses to leave me.
Happy birthday, America. You are truly rich and blessed with an abundance of people who love you enough to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep you safe. May they all be safe and sound this year and may we celebrate next year with the news that there will be no more IEDs or casualties to count because they have all come home.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Web site, www.elisepatkotak.com.