By Rabbi Irwin Wiener
In 1965, sitting in front of my television, a newsflash appeared listing the death toll in Vietnam. In those days, it was a daily occurrence. The intensity of the conflict was beginning to show signs of terrible days and years ahead.
What caught my eye at that time was a name I had not seen, nor uttered, for many years, Major Alan Pasco. He was a childhood friend growing up in the Bronx, New York. We hung out, played basketball, went to the same playground, and just enjoyed life. He was one of the first casualties.
These thoughts came to mind when I recently viewed a movie, “The Last Full Measure.” This period in our history still brings back horrific images of maimed bodies, lost limbs, lost lives, and lost opportunities. The men who sacrificed so much for so little have no future, no love to warm their hearts, no families to watch as they join for holidays and other celebrations.
These men and women will never have families of their own, no children to shower with affection, no stories of growing old while enjoying the fruits of their labors. There are no tomorrows, only yesterdays. In the ten years of the Vietnam War there were 58,220 casualties.
I watched this film, tears rolling down my cheeks, not truly understanding the purpose of the sacrifices. My mind wandered to the early 1970s, when our country showed its disdain for the war by shunning our men and women in uniform. At that time, America showed its anger and frustration by insulting and criticizing the actions of these brave souls.
The one thing we did not do is focus our contempt on the people who brought us to the brink of disgust in anything and everything our country was now involved in. From the Secretary of Defense, to the Secretary of State, to the Generals, and of course, to the President of the United States, we neglected to remind them their obligations rested with the care and safety of those we send into battle. Time and again we read and witnessed the lack of fortitude in determining the value of this so-called undeclared war.
Over, and over, I watched as the pain of their involvement became too much to bear. The wounded, the dead, all giving the last full measure in an attempt to survive and fulfill their obligations as patriots. Young and old joined together to help each other in the madness they encountered. Medics tried to piece together the broken and shattered remnants of what was once whole.
None of us can truly understand the torment, the agony, the despair felt as fellow soldiers fell at the feet of their comrades. Can we ever focus on the blood soaked ground and not feel ashamed at the senseless slaughter of our brothers, our fathers, our sons, and our future?
Perhaps only eyes washed by tears can see clearly the futility of war. Perhaps the tragedies we encounter are less significant than what happens within us. This, to me, is the reality of death and destruction perpetrated on ourselves as we try to justify this madness.
Airman First Class William Pitsenbarger, to me, is a symbol of both what is right with our service men and women and at the same time, what is wrong with the way we treat them as they display the heroism expected. The depression, homelessness, and lack of proper medical treatment are all indications of our neglect for the sanctity of life and gratitude for their service.
People like Airman First Class Pitsenbarger and all who have served and continue to serve are owed a debt of gratitude. He represented all that is good in us. He represented the sacrifices we are willing to make to protect who we are. He represented, and still represents, the millions who serve, who give of themselves so that we can enjoy the beauty of freedom and the values established by the few for so many.
Have we learned anything from this travesty? Have we learned anything from the lack of respect we display by ignoring the traumas of these dedicated individuals? Will we ever stand up and demonstrate our concern for all those we are responsible for?
Yes, my dear friend Major Alan Pasco gave his life in defense of his country. Yes, 58,220 other men sacrificed so much for so little in return. Yes, Airman First Class William Pitsenbarger comforted the wounded, attempted to offer comfort in an atmosphere of despair, and taught us how the power of one person can make a difference. Yes, Vietnam is in the past, but it should not be forgotten.
And yes, the stark memorial dedicated to their memories should remind us we owe so much that can never truly be repaid, but we should never stop trying.
Volume 74. Number 2. 2020