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Honoring the Fallen

America’s Memorial Day Inspires Deep Reflection, Remembrance for Individual Sacrifices in All Wars

Don Kozak stencils the name of a fellow Marine who he served with in the Vietnam War. This is the first time he has been able to visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall. He still grieves the loss of those that he fought with but says he is finally ready to move on. © Adam R. Cole 

A member of the U.S. Army stoically guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. © Adam R. Cole 2008

Don Kozak solemnly scans the black granite wall for names. He has traveled from Dutton, Va. to Washington D.C. on Memorial Day 2008, far away from the battlefields of Vietnam, to the 246-foot wall with 58,256 names of those that lost lives in that war, to bury the fallen Marines that he once served alongside. Bury, not in a physical sense, but in a metaphysical sense, for their spirits still call him, haunt him really, on a daily basis.

Kozak, who owns three Purple Hearts for his tour of duty in Vietnam, a 9-month push at age 19 with the 1st Battalion, 27th Marines, has come to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to lay hand-crafted white crosses. The crosses are about a foot long, with a U.S. flag sticker at the very top which sits above a U.S. Army sticker above the unit’s sticker, with a purple heart sticker just below the intersection of the cross, and a short inscription, “Semper Fi,” the Marine Corps creed of always faithful.

Fifty-four. That is the total number of people that Kozak served with and lost, two of them being people not directly tied to his unit but being hometown best friends, guys he joined with. He’s made about two dozens crosses and lays each one cross below their names.

Chester “Sonny” Schapanick was one of Kozak’s best friends. He died May 21, 1966 in Quang Nam, South Vietnam due to small arms fire.

Holding his emotions in check, Kozak stoically colors the name of Patrick M. Lorditch (1949-1968) with a special black pencil onto a piece of paper, as sort of a ritual of healing and remembrance. He’s done about 20 of these, though he’s not sure his emotions can handle all 54.

“I figure by creating this visual (through the crosses and the names on paper), I can cement a good bye,” said Kozak. “After 40 years, it’s time for me to move, it’s time for me to live life without them calling me.”

They say war is hell. Once you start talking to guys like Kozak, the stark reality of that is very evident.

The hardest part, say most, is the aftermath, living in the shadows of war, living with the guilt of being alive. Those that survive find they never escape the battlefield. They talk about the smells and the sounds that bring them back. They talk about the souls of those that knew that are now buried and how those people grip their every waking moment.

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Memorial Day, for the most part, seeks to uplift and unite, as Americans collectively remember and give homage to the brave men and women who fought and gave their lives in the call of freedom. Indeed, it is difficult for some, as this day is a painful reminder of the past, a past that may be stained with blood.

Though the landscapes of the U.S.’s military engagements may change, from German to Japanese to Korean to Iraqi soil, the struggle for peace has never ceased and the dedication and heroic resolve of America’s service members has never ceased with it.

The nation’s capital, where the lost lives of nearly every major war are memorialized, represents a sort of ground zero for remembrance. It draws citizens from throughout the country, including some 350,000 motorcyclists who roar into town as part of the veterans support group Rolling Thunder. They stage a three-day rally here every year, this year being the 21st, which concludes with a "Ride for Freedom", a motorcycle procession of sorts, which cuts across the heart of D.C. and ends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Those that gather here sport leather jackets with patriot inscriptions. On one man’s back, apparently a member of the “Patriot Guard Riders,” it reads, “Standing for those who stood for us.” Taking a stand for those that can’t stand anymore is the heart of the Rolling Thunder message. Primarily, they ride for the prisoners of war and the missing in action, brave soldiers still unaccounted for. They also stand up for the wounded, those whose lives will never be the same due to a lost limb and a tangled mind, to ensure that these people are getting the treatment, medically and financially they deserve for their sacrifice. It is a noble cause and as you stand in D.C. on Memorial weekend, loud engines vrooming up and down the streets, you can tell that they are being heard.

Coincidentally, this year’s ride inducted President George W. Bush into its cadre as an honorary member. Rolling Thunder founder and chairman Artie Muller gave the President a leather vest on the Whitehouse lawn.

President Bush, as the commander in chief of the present day forces, spoke at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. He echoed the sentiments of those riders and the national sentiment of memorializing the sacrifices of the fallen.

"In a world where freedom is constantly under attack, and in a world where our security is challenged, the joys of liberty are often purchased by the sacrifices of those who serve a cause greater than themselves," Bush was reported as saying in the Associated Press in a speech at Arlington, where he would later lay a wreath in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

At Arlington, 290,000 of all generations of military personnel are buried, including about 500 from the Iraq war. The sight of row after row of headstones inspires deep reflection, remembrance to the gallant warriors of yesterday and today.

In his remarks at Arlington, Bush made special mention of two Navy SEALs killed this February in Iraq who exemplified that sacrifice. Chief Petty Officers Nathan H. Hardy and Michael E. Koch, both 29, lost their lives in Iraq, after being wounded from small-arms fire in combat operations.

According to the latest numbers from the Defense Department, reported in the Associated Press, 4,083 U.S. troops have died in the Iraq war and 423 in Afghanistan, while 30,112 U.S. service members have been wounded in hostile action. At the parade in Washington D.C., participants are given flags—provided by the non-profit group Soldiers’ Angels—with names of those that have died in the war. While the parade is a celebratory time for all, marked by marching bands and performances on floats, the name-scripted flags are an enduring reminder of loss caused by war.

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Karie Darga has her own way of remembrance, wearing a black and silver bracelet with her husband’s name Paul Darga and the date that his life was lost in Iraq, August 22, 2006. Her spouse was an explosive ordinance disposal technician. He is survived by Karie and daughter Kailey, 4 years old.

In order to aid the grieving process, and move past the tragedy, Darga has started a foundation called the Military Spouse and Family Legacy Association, which seeks to unite families and invites them to share stories to be compiled in sort of a virtual scrap book.

The goal of the foundation, at the moment, is to bring to life a military spouse and family monument, which will be hosted near the Arlington National Cemetery. This Memorial Day weekend, Darga joined other widowed military spouses at a special conference sponsored by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), while her daughter enjoyed a camp for kids with deceased dads and moms due to war.

She said the Memorial weekend wasn’t extraordinarily painful, not as painful as August 2006 or even the prior year at TAPS, especially with the support of other widows, but the loss of her husband is never far from her heart.

“Though it’s hard to feel the deep sense of loss when walking into a room of hundreds who have lost loved ones in the military, it’s also a great comfort to be with those who understand. It’s a place where we can be real with each other and no one gets uncomfortable by our laughter and tears as we remember the good times and the losses we’ve suffered. We help each other to look forward and celebrate the lives of our loved ones.”

Though these feelings continue to resonate inside, Darga looks forward to the day when the monument will be erected and garner a strong sense of peace for military spouses and children including those who have lost loved ones.

“I envision the day the monument is unveiled; being surrounded by active duty families, those from World War II and Vietnam, as well as many Gold Star families. Somehow I picture the whole scene surrounded in American flags and all of us connecting as those who love someone who serves our country. These families serve in their own right; they hold down the fort while their loved one goes off to war, they endure endless military moves, worry over their loved one’s safety, care for our wounded veterans, and many sacrifice their own career ambitions in order to run a household, raise a family, and support a loved one in service.”

For Kozak, as well, for other Vietnam veterans like him, for the Thunder Rally participants, for all the grieving parents, children of the 4,000-plus lives taken in Iraq and Afghanistan, may that sense of peace resound in them all.