It was Veterans Day one year ago that I announced the Afghanistan Memory Wall project. I had been memorizing since May 1st but I hadn’t gone public with it yet because frankly, I didn’t know if I could do it. 7,000 words memorized in sequence with no pattern (it wasn’t in alphabetical order). So for 6 months I had memorized with only a handful knowing what I was tackling. Then on Veteran’s Day 2012 I released a Youtube video telling the world what I was doing.
When I made the video I had no idea to what to expect. Up until this point everyone that knew about the project (less than 10) would ask me:
- Where will you do it?
- Where will you get the wall?
- Can you do it?
- Are you sure?
I had none of these questions answered. I would reply, ‘I don’t know. All I know is if when I write the names it is just me and the wall in a field somewhere and no one knows about it or sees it that will be enough for me. I would have said to the guys on the wall. You are not forgotten.’ Well….this wasn’t even close to what happened.
One friend even suggested by saying, ‘Ron that is so nice of you to want to do but maybe instead of memorizing the names you can just hold the book in your hand and write down the names while reading the book.’ It was a nice thought, but NO WAY. This was to say, ‘You are not FORGOTTEN!’ I had to memorize it and by Veterans Day I was about 300-400 names away and feeling confident I could handle the task. On the video I announced that I would write the names in January or February. I figured January would be easy. Turns out it wasn’t. I ended up scheduling the first wall writing for Feb 28th. It was the last possible day I could do the wall and still keep my word and do it in January or February and I needed every single one of those extra days.
By Christmas time, I set up a series of white dry erase boards in my office and I would spend HOURS a day up here just writing the names from memory. The first time I did it I had over 10% errors (spelling errors or forgetting names). There is no way I would be happy with 10% errors. I couldn’t write 7,000 words and have 700 misspelled. So I just kept writing over and over and over again. It is how I spent December, January and February. The good news is once I misspelled a word it would stick stronger in my mind and I didn’t miss that one again. I set a target of 4% errors would be acceptable. So I wrote and wrote and wrote.
I worried….would my arm get tired? So I did push ups as well.
3 weeks out I didn’t have a wall!! I had a date set but no wall. I sent out an urgent email on Facebook and ultimately found a company to design the PERFECT wall for the writing. It looks like a permanent structure.
Here is a secret – When February 28th arrived: I had notified the media, gotten permission from the City of Fort Worth, notified my family and friends and invited everyone out to a celebration at my place afterwards. Here is the secret. I had never written it out from start to finish before. Oh sure, in my office I had written for 4-8 hours at a time. But I never did it completely. So on that day, February 28th 2013 I wrote out the wall for the first time in public and for the first time all the way through.
The emotions of that day are still very real to me and I have goose bumps right now thinking about it. I met moms and dads of the fallen that day that I know will be life long friends I embraced them and shook hands with a Lieutenant who knew Lance Cpl Cody Childers and I humbly watched him just stare at that kids name for what seemed liked an hour.
When the end of the day arrived it was getting dark (I had started at 7:30am) and I still wasn’t done. A man asked my cousin and helper, Donovan, ‘What will he do if it gets dark?’ My cousin replied, ‘I don’t know. We hadn’t planned for that.’ I was unaware this conversation was taking place but according to my cousin an hour later industrial lights (like you see on highway construction sites at night) were set up and ready to be deployed. My cousin didn’t get his name but just said, ‘He seemed to be a man who was used to making things happen.’
Another man in a nice suit and cowboy hat walked by my mom while I was writing the names, pointed to me and said, ‘If I ever need a man to find me some oil that is who I would call.’
I had set a goal of 4% errors, when the wall was checked the next day there was only 27 errors a .003 error rate.
At the end of the day I barely beat the light and when I wrote the last 20 names my eyes were filling with tears and my hand was shaking. I had done it. I had fulfilled my vision. In a very emotional moment, I took a few steps back, got in the center of the wall and rendered a salute to the wall which lasted for about 45 seconds.
The vision was completed. I had pulled it off. More importantly the heroes were honored.