WASHINGTON – A veteran donning a baseball hat embroidered with the word "Army" stood at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, neck craned, looking for a name. His reflection stared back at him from the black granite wall, surely a stark contrast to the young man who served in Vietnam many years ago. With a face lined with wrinkles and eyes encumbered by failing sight, he used the camera of his smartphone to zoom in, methodically scanning the wall, name by name.
Once he found it, he slowly sketched the outline of a familiar name with a pencil on a piece of paper, a modest keepsake to honor the memory of his friend who perished in Vietnam.
This retired Soldier was part of a group of nearly 100 veterans from Illinois and Iowa who visited the National Capital Region Nov. 4 to view and touch the monuments dedicated to their service. They moved from memorial to memorial, sharing stories or pausing to reflect on their service quietly.
They came to pay homage to those who made the ultimate sacrifice – some of them peers and friends.
"It's always an honor to meet with heroes who have sacrificed for our nation to preserve our freedoms and way of life," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Marc Sasseville, vice chief of the National Guard Bureau. "It's important to let them know how much we appreciate their sacrifice and that they have earned our eternal gratitude."
Sasseville met with many tour group veterans at Arlington National Cemetery, where they witnessed the ceremonial changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Afterward, the group traveled to the National Mall in Washington to visit memorials there.
"I am sure there are names of people I knew on this wall," said Peter Jones, a retired Soldier and former National Guardsman from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "You lose touch with them over the years."
The memorial wall was dedicated on Veterans Day 1982. More than 58,000 names are inscribed on the wall, each representing a U.S. service member who is missing or was killed in action during the Vietnam War.
Jones, who served in the Army and 224th Engineer Battalion, Iowa Army National Guard, was deployed in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.
"I've seen the traveling wall," said Jones. "It is really special to be here to see the real thing. It was hard, but I went over there and fought for my country."
The majority of this tour group served in Vietnam, with others serving in the Korean War and one who served in World War II. These tours offer aging veterans the opportunity to visit hallowed sites, all expenses paid. This tour group visited Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, The National Mall and the Air Force Memorial, all in one day.
Rolland Anderson of Galva, Illinois, said he did not serve in any conflict, though his brother served in the Korean War and "made it home OK."
Anderson retired from the Illinois Army National Guard following a 30-year career that afforded him many opportunities as an artilleryman.
"I think it's a great organization," said Anderson of the National Guard.
Anderson offered this advice to younger generations about serving in the military: "Go in and check it out. See the country and the world."