March 18, 20014 would find me at Fort Hood with my dad doing the Afghanistan Memory Wall. It was the first memory wall in over 4 months and certainly the first of 2014. When I look back on 2013 there is much pride and satisfaction with the wall. I wrote it out 8 times:
Willie Nelson’s 4th of July picnic
Fundraising banquet to honor the fallen
TCU football game
I learned so much during 2013 writing the wall. One of the most surprising things for me was the reaction the wall would get. My friend and coach, former US Navy SEAL TC Cummings predicted the families would stand at the wall for hours in anticipation of seeing their loved one’s name being written on the wall. I brushed this off as not plausible but TC was right and it was an honor for me that was repeated many times.
I also learned from my errors. During the construction of the wall the builders suggested that I have the wall pre numbered so I don’t have to write the numbers each time. I scoffed at this and said I needed to write the numbers each time. What a mistake that was. I didn’t take into account that it might take 2 seconds to write each number especially when you get to the 4 digit numbers. Those 2 seconds times 2,300 = 4,600 seconds or 77 minutes or 1 HOUR 17 MINUTES! In reality I think it takes me a little longer, maybe 1.5 to 2 hours.
I am taking many lessons into 2014 as I write the wall. On March 17, the day before the wall in Fort Hood I picked up my dad and we drove 2.5 hour drive. He was going as my helper this time. He served in the Army in the late 60s early 70s and was stationed in Korea. He was a military police officer. He had been in ROTC in high school and the military was a natural transition for him. He served around 3 years I think. Honestly I never asked but I do know as a kid his military uniform was my favorite clothes to wear. I would put his gear on and roll around in the backyard hunting for Viet Cong. It was my Halloween uniform, my play uniform, my lay around the house uniform and today at nearly age 40 I still have those uniforms in my possession. Although, I no longer wear them.
After the military my dad went on to serve 40 years as a police officer in Texas and those uniforms I also wore. I sported the police uniform a few times for Halloween in my 20s and 30s and turns out it was a terrible uniform. The last thing folks want to see when they are drinking is an authentic police uniform walking around the party.
The drive to Fort Hood my dad and I talked about the military, the wall, the family and life in general. It was a good time to catch up and spend time talking. I was grateful for the help and I know he was happy to go. He has much respect for anyone who serves in the military as I do. He knows what it takes. He has been there and done that and knows serving in the military in this country is a choice. At any given time 1% of the population is serving. That’s it. 1%. To borrow a slogan from the Marines…the few…the proud and we all are proud of our service. It’s a life long bond.
The trip down to Fort Hood my GPS suggested one way and my dad’s GPS suggested…well…the right way. We went through all the back road Texas towns somehow thanks to my GPS and by the time I realized it I was too committed to the route to turn around. We arrived at Fort Hood via the back gate because of this. When we arrived we had maybe 3 miles of gas left in the tank and the worse news was that it was the wrong gate for visitors. We were instructed to turn around and find the front entrance. I knew we wouldn’t make it and that is when my dad and I pulled out all the stops with the Sgt at the gate telling them about the wall and what we were doing. They called our hosts on base and soon we were on our way.
We set the wall up the night before and I wrote out the numbers the night before. It saves tremendous time. The next morning I met my dad at 0645 in the lobby of the hotel and we set out for Fort Hood a few miles away. I was rested and ready to go.
It was a unique feeling writing the wall at Fort Hood knowing that many would know the names on the wall. There was less traffic or overall people at the wall because it was a military base and everyone had jobs to do. Plus, I don’t think the base publicized it very well. But I was grateful to be there. Like any other Memory Wall I have done it started with just my helper and this time that was my dad, at 8am writing the first line. The first line of the wall I will write:
WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq
In a way it is my way of honor the hero’s from other conflicts but it was not intended to be that way. When I started memorizing the wall in 2012 the first step was to print out the name. I did this with an excel spreadsheet and every hero was assigned a number. What I didn’t realize is that the first row (#1) didn’t contain a name of a fallen hero. Instead that row had the column headers :
RANK, FIRST NAME, LAST NAME
This meant the first person on my wall, MSgt Evander Andrews was actually assigned to #2. By the time I realized this I was over 100 names into the memory process and I certainly wasn’t going to start over. So I just accepted the fact that there would be no one assigned to #1. The first time I wrote out the wall (Feb 28, 2013) I simply skipped #1 and wrote #2 and left the #1 spot blank. All throughout the day people would walk by and discussing the hidden meaning behind that. Was it for a top secret spy that I couldn’t mention his name? Was it left for a special hero I would write last? What was the meaning?
That is when I decided to put an end to that speculation and turned this into a positive. I now use that space to honor the fallen in previous conflicts.
At Fort Hood we had many special moments. An Army veteran who lost 10 friends showed up and left in tears. The tv crew that was there to do a story really capitalized on him being there and handed him the book asking him to look up his friends and to quiz me on what number they were on the wall. It was awkward for me and I know the tv crew meant no harm but these were his friends he watched die in battle and the tv crew was turning it into a game. The tv guys are incredibly good guys and they certainly meant no harm but they just didn’t understand. The veteran eventually broke down in tears and left the wall.
My cousin made this error once as well. I was talking with a guy at the MLB baseball game who had a friend on the wall and was near tears. My cousin asked him if he would like his picture with me. They guy just walked away. I know my cousin meant no harm but sometimes folks start seeing the wall as a memory demonstration with me as the star and not a tribute to hero’s with the names on the wall as the focus. I understand it but I am uncomfortable with it and I am very aware that the veterans who show up don’t see it as a memory demonstration. They see their friends.
That day Sgt Perkins stood at the wall for hours with his family as he waited for me to write his friends names. A woman showed up who served with Spc Shawn Muhr and searched out his name. Another was an Army wife whose husband has made it back. He role when her husband was deployed was to keep in contact with all the wives. She also searched out one of her husband’s friends.
That day at Fort Hood I really sped through the names and finished in record time. 8 hours. Partly because the crowds were lighter and fewer interruptions, partly because I wrote out the numbers the night prior and partly because I had spent the previous 10 days immersed in reviewing the names.
That night my dad and I with the help of the TV crew loaded up the wall and drove back to Fort Worth. This time we listened to my dad’s GPS and soon I would be in my own bed relaxing after another satisfying day.