I leaned up against the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington that afternoon, one hand placed firmly over his name: William T. Hale. My shoulders shook, as the tears rolled down my cheeks. One name, his name, just one name among some fifty-eight thousand etched into that black granite wall. He had been my little brother in my fraternity. I had looked after him, or tried to, during his pledgeship. Standing six feet three inches tall, he really was a long, tall Texan, hailing from Big Spring. William Thomas Hale or Bill Tom, as we called him, had the biggest nose of anyone in his pledge class. Naturally we nick-named him “Snozzer.” Today it would be called harassment. Back then we all just laughed. It was a term of endearment, a guy-thing-kind-of-endearment and he loved it.
His mother, a widow, was so proud of him. He had five older sisters and they adored him. The six of them were terrified he would turn out to be some kind of wuss, but he didn’t. In his quiet way, with a wonderful laugh, he made it just fine in a man’s world. Girls on campus were delighted when he asked them out. One thing Bill Tom was clear about was wanting to serve his country as a Marine. It was what he talked about and wanted to do with his life. After graduation he entered the Marines and was trained as a helicopter pilot.
Six weeks after he went to Vietnam his helicopter was shot down. Everyone on board was killed. Dead. Gone. October 10, 1968.
He died fifty years ago, but there is never a Memorial Day that I do not think about Bill Tom. Never. And I know that I am one of millions whose hearts rend on this day. There are many in our country who cannot conceive of men who offered their lives to serve their country. I was born in the middle of World War II. How many mother’s sons never came home from that war? How many sons were buried in shallow graves in Europe or on islands in the Pacific? How many mother’s sons were killed in Korea or Vietnam or other wars our country has been engaged in? So many.
You and I can argue the pros and cons of whether these military engagements were merited or not. We cannot argue the fact that these men gave their lives, in the belief that they were serving their country, even when it meant making the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus said, “No greater love is this, than a man lay down his life for his friends.”
So this afternoon, don’t let Memorial Day sales ads beguile you. Don’t limit this day to backyard picnics or excursions to the beach or lake house. Stop. Remember. Be thankful. Offer a prayer of gratitude for the Bill Tom Hales who served our country. This is Memorial Day. It is a time for tears and gratitude.
They are gone, but God willing, they will never be forgotten.