A poignant ceremony at my high school this week honored the memory of 11 graduates killed in Vietnam.
At the end, a roll call of the dead was intoned by a classmate who had played fullback on our football team, become an enlisted soldier and medic in Vietnam and later a physician.
As he solemnly called each name and rank, a responder reported: “Not present — but accounted for, sir!”
It was a good accounting, sad but long overdue.
By coincidence, Vietnam veterans John Kerry and Chuck Hagel in recent days have faced Senate confirmation hearings for presidential appointments, respectively as secretary of state and secretary of defense. One a veteran of the Navy, the other of the Army; one a Democrat, one a Republican.
Attending the Vietnam memorial service in Cincinnati on Wednesday, I couldn't help thinking back to our late 1950s childhood and TV's “Mickey Mouse Club.” Its newsreel segment always concluded: “Dedicated to you, the leaders of the 21st century!”
Yes, our generation grew up, and some — like Kerry and Hagel — became U.S. senators. But some of the kids who watched that after-school TV show didn't even come close to the 21st century — as attested to by the 58,000-plus names etched in black granite at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Maybe your school has conducted a memorial service like ours. We first did so a long time ago — when as students, we honored the memory of our first graduate to die in Vietnam.
He was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, a 40-year-old Navy commander shot down over Hanoi in September 1965. Our congressman and other dignitaries attended an all-school assembly on the eve of Veterans Day. We didn't know the fallen flier, but we dedicated our yearbook to him.
As teenagers, we were just learning about this place called Vietnam. Sad to say, four guys in the student body at that assembly would die in Vietnam and others would be wounded — physically or psychologically.
So, why a memorial service in front of today's students all these years later?
It started five or six years ago when my class of 1966 rallied around classmate Hank Mueller, a Marine who had been blinded by mortar shrapnel in Vietnam. He survived but spent 15 months in hospitals.
He overcame depression, earned a college degree, became a counselor and has lived a life without bitterness. He and Janet, his wife of 40 years, have three daughters.
Classmates a few years ago set up a scholarship in his name to benefit sons of military veterans at our all-boys, parochial Elder High School.
After Mass in the fieldhouse for Catholic Schools Week, nearly 1,000 students and a few hundred others applauded as Hank, wearing dark glasses and guided by Janet, took the lectern.
He talked not about his terrible wounds and personal challenges but about having worked at a local pizza joint as a teenager. He spoke about entering high school as a boy and leaving as a man and about all the support he received in his recovery, including while at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
He got some laughs when he told about receiving mail and a musical gift from people at the school — a boom box.
“In 1967,” he told the students, “that was state of the art.”
Hank also mentioned how divided the country was over the Vietnam War, and how returning military personnel often were criticized and mistreated.
One lesson we learned from that unfortunate time in our history is not to blame the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are called on to fight our wars.
In contrast to today's all-volunteer military, the Vietnam War was fought largely by draftees. I myself benefited from the unfair college deferment and then a high draft-lottery number, and I didn't serve in the military.
An old baseball teammate of mine, who worked at the same pizza place as Hank, told me Wednesday that he left college after a year “to find myself.” Instead, he said, his draft board quickly found him — and he fought in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division.
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The high school stands at the intersection of two avenues, Vincent and Regina. The head football coach from our time, who organized support for Hank and other military folks over the years, got a big laugh when he told the audience that the school once received a thank-you note from a unit that must have thought the gifts came from a nice couple.
The letter began: “Dear Vincent and Regina.”
When I was 17, as the song says, it was a very good year. But life inevitably intervenes. The four fellow students in the crowd at our long-ago assembly, when we honored the first grad to perish in Vietnam, each died at 20.
All 11 of the deaths from my school occurred in a span of about 2½ years, the last one in April 1968. Just a tiny fraction of the total, but still meaningful to us all these years later.
That war cost 396 Nebraska lives and 851 from Iowa. Few schools in America went untouched.
Our buddy Hank — who we like to say sees things more clearly than the rest of us — explained to students that every time our classmates gathered in recent years, conversation turned to the 11 who died and the need for a fitting memorial.
So another of our classmates crafted beautiful shadow boxes with plaques, one in memory of each of the fallen, which were formally blessed by a classmate who is a priest.
There's also a “12th man” plaque in memory of those who died later from chemical effects of the war, even if not officially recognized as such, and in honor of those still affected.
“You survived the haze of piercing metal,” that plaque reads, “only to be struck by the mist of Agent Orange.”
Marching out in procession with relatives of the 11, today's students carried the plaques for permanent placement in the school. Wars continue, and some students who attended Wednesday's ceremony will serve our nation.
The grads from our class, who came of age in the '60s, can barely believe we're now in our 60s.
Mournful of those we lost and mindful of their sacrifice, we at long last have honored them publicly. They are not present, but are surely accounted for in our hearts.
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