By Tim Hayes
Among the back pages of a magazine many years ago, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, a small ad caught my eye: “P.O.W. Bracelets Available. Let them know you haven’t forgotten them.”
For a nominal fee, I sent in the form and a few weeks later, received my Prisoner of War Bracelet, a thin bendable silver strip with the name “Col. Mason Burnham” engraved on it, along with the date he went missing in Vietnam. I squeezed the bracelet around my right wrist and wore that silver talisman through all of my middle school and part of my high school years.
Fast forward about 10 years. I found myself in Washington, D.C., attending a professional development seminar. With most of one afternoon free, I decided to walk around the capital.
After walking past the White House and the Washington Monument, I kept on and reached the Mall. The Lincoln Memorial was in view, and I meant to make my way there, but was interrupted by what was then a relatively new feature on that beautiful expanse, the Vietnam Memorial.
Carved into the earth in a V-shape, the Vietnam Memorial remains stunning in its simple, yet emotionally powerful presentation of the thousands upon thousands of names – Americans who lost their lives in that Southeast Asian conflict. Visitors start at either end of the “V” and descend to the vortex, passing row after row of names etched into the black marble.
As I reached the site, the memory of my teenage P.O.W. bracelet shot to the front of my brain. Could Col. Burnham’s name be among this tragic compendium? I searched the directory at the entrance to the memorial, hoping that I wouldn’t find that name. But there it was. Col. Mason Burnham. A fallen American hero.
The directory gave the position of each name on the wall, so I carefully descended into the silence of the massive marble “V” and eventually located the name.
Obviously, I had never met the man. I was just a kid when he was captured. All I knew about Vietnam was what I saw on TV each night behind Walter Cronkite’s head, where there was an American flag with a number under it – the total number of G.I.s killed that day.
All I knew was that nightly image, plus the tenuous connection of my P.O.W. bracelet. Even as I wore that bracelet every day, I wondered and worried about Col. Burnham, because he was a prisoner of war, not yet a casualty of war. There was always a glimmer of hope. Someday he would be released and sent back home, wherever in the U.S. that happened to be.
But as I stared up at that unmistakable, unyielding, unalterable carving in that silent wall of black, the hope I recalled from my teenager’s consciousness was swept away like so many dried leaves in the wind. And I cried for a moment for Col. Burnham, his family, his friends, and the life he sacrificed for me and you and every American.
Memorial Day marks the start of the season of fun. Swimming, cookouts, going to ball games. And there’s nothing wrong about any of that. We’re free to do those things, to make our own way in life, and to reap the innumerable benefits of living in this amazing nation.
But this Memorial Day, I plan also to take a moment to think about the man whose name I walked around with on my wrist during some of the most formative years of my life. And say a silent “thank you” to all of those who gave all – for us all.
Thank you, Col. Burnham. Mission accomplished. Well done. Take your rest.
Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes