I didn’t want a monument,
not even one as sober as that
vast black wall of broken lives.
I didn’t want a postage stamp.
I didn’t want a road beside the Delaware
River with a sign proclaiming:
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway.
What I wanted was a simple recognition
of the limits of our power as a nation
to inflict our will on others.
What I wanted was an understanding
the world is neither black-and-white
What I wanted
was an end to monuments.
Anonymous poem left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.
For thousands of years, humans have been erecting monuments to their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, dads and moms slain on battlefields around the globe. Two years ago Whistler’s Milo Rusimovich stood in front of one of the most imposing monuments in the world — the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
"The Wall," as it is called, is a polished black granite monument with 58,132 names engraved on it. The names represent the Americans killed and missing in action during the course of the Vietnam War.
What they also represent, Rusimovich says, is the need to make sure humankind does not forget those who gave their lives in battle. He concurs wholeheartedly with the poem writer: "I would like to see a world where we don’t have monuments like that."
A 49-year-old veteran of the Vietnam war, Rusimovich can put faces and memories to some of the names on The Wall, heroes of America’s largest non-war. Dubbed a police action, the rice paddies of Vietnam were the watery grave for tens of thousands of Americans and, to the best of Rusimovich’s knowledge, thousands of Canadians.
After what he calls a very hard, but necessary, visit to The Wall, Rusimovich came to grips with Vietnam and how it affected his life — and he put it behind. He attended Whistler’s Remembrance Day ceremony last year for the first time, not to forget, but to remember.
Tomorrow, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, he will lay a wreath at the Whistler cenotaph on behalf of the U.S. Marine Corps.
"I wasn’t much into Remembrance Day before I went to The Wall... it was hard. Who wants to stir up a bunch of bad memories?" he says. But the memories are necessary. As the veterans of the two World Wars age and pass on, Rusimovich says it is essential to educate the children of the world that war monuments should be a thing of the past. The Vietnam war, unlike many others, did not create a tidal wave of patriotism. It divided the country and left a scar on the American psyche that is still healing.
"Education is the key," he says, pointing to his two young daughters watching TV in the next room of his comfortable Tapley’s Farm home. "We have got to remind ourselves about the horror of war and teach our youth that we don’t want to have any more war… when I stood in front of that monument all I could think of was the waste of young lives that are etched there."
Rusimovich’s young life had barely started when he bolted from his Manitoba home at the age of 17. His first stop was at the U.S. recruiting station in Fargo, North Dakota where he wanted to sign up for the U.S. Navy. The Navy recruiter was not there and a "spit and polish marine" told him he was too wimpy and soft to ever serve in the United States Marine Corps — he signed up then and there. "I fell for his sales job hook line and sinker," the amiable Rusimovich says with a chuckle.
The year was 1964, Milo was a marine and Vietnam was still just a foreign country.
"I joined the corps to get away from my parents and see the world, not to go to Vietnam," he says. The Rusimovich World Tour started in California, carried on to Florida and Panama then to Vietnam. For a year in 1966-67, Rusimovich served in the northern part of Vietnam as part of the 120-member 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company. The Marine equivalent of the Green Berets or Navy Seals, Rusimovich and his comrades helicoptered into enemy areas, located Viet Cong troops and called in the heavy guns from the coast or from the air.
"We got in, found the enemy and got out," he recalls. "We were lucky because our job was to not engage the enemy." That does not mean he was sheltered from the horror which was Vietnam. He lost friends… and made them. He keeps in touch with two members of his company — one from Cleveland, Ohio and the other from Great Falls, Montana — he has yet to meet either in person since the war.
When Rusimovich places the wreath tomorrow morning, the silence provided in reverence to the war dead will echo around the world and in Milo’s head an entire war will be replayed in a flash. Then it will be over… until the next year when veterans, their children and their children’s children line up to remember.
"We can’t forget what Remembrance Day means," he says. "If we do, all of those young lives will have been cut short for nothing… we cannot forget them."