Sterling is the name of the man who owns the hardware store where I live. But Sterling is much more than just the owner of a hardware store. He’s a veteran; a veteran of the Korean War. In fact, Sterling was awarded the Silver Star for heroism after fighting near Hagaru Ri and a Purple Heart later during that war. Anyone who knows anything about the Chosin Reservoir immediately recognizes the name Hagaru Ri and has an appreciation for the kind of fight Sterling must have had against the waves of Chinese attacking from the north.
I recently stopped at the hardware store to renew my American Legion membership. Sterling’s also an officer for our local American Legion Post. He asked if I was going to be attending our town’s Veterans Day program. I replied that I didn’t think I could attend because I was scheduled to give a speech at Fort McPherson National Cemetery.
Sterling then paused and he took off his glasses with one hand, looked at me and ran his other hand through his white hair. After a moment he said to me in a calm, but sincere voice, “there’s a good friend of mine buried there. He was hurt bad during the war, right near me. He died there in Korea. I’ll never forget him. I can still see his face.”
With the revelation of each fact, Sterling paused, as if weighing the gravity of individual memories now coming alive once again.
He continued, “I’ve visited his grave there at Fort McPherson. He’s buried near the flag pole. I’ve shed a lot of tears for him over the years. He was from Nebraska City. His name is Duane Hoyle.”
After my time in Iraq, I really don’t have many fears. But I suddenly realized at that moment I was afraid of something I’d never thought about. I was afraid, that unlike Sterling who hadn’t forgotten, I would forget the names of the Marines I served with in Iraq. Even though they were alive, I was afraid I would lose touch with them and eventually forget their names. Suddenly a name meant more to me than I could have ever imagined.
Standing there with Sterling, all of my friends’ call signs started running through my head, but their names were escaping me. I almost panicked. I could remember “Moe, Troll, Grumpy, Bronco and Dirt,” but their real names were briefly, inexplicably lost.
I quickly regained my thoughts and the names rushed back to me, but the fear of forgetting those names was now irreversibly imprinted in my mind. We finished the business at hand and I left the hardware store, enlightened by the experience, knowing that in a very small way, I now understood the fight at Hagaru Ri just a little better than I had before.
I was humbled by the shared memory. Not just by the willing openness, but in the fact that during one brief encounter a very personal, living history of the Korean War was opened right before my eyes and made available as a lesson that will remain with me for the rest of my life.
It also reaffirmed my perception, whether right or wrong, which causes me to believe that those who served in previous wars, the warriors of previous generations, should be held in higher esteem than we should ever hold ourselves. Even though we might have “been there and done that,” we sometimes still consider our predecessors as more deserving of the title “veteran.” The proof for this philosophy was endorsed yet again with that one trip to the hardware store.
I also knew this had been one of those lessons that can make us better people, if, in this case, for no other reason, than to make me a better “name” person because I’m not very good at remembering people’s names. I’ve resolved to be better at it now.
But most importantly, Sterling taught me a lesson that day about the power of a name. Obviously every name is personal, but it’s the experiences of and with the people who belong to each name that gives power to something as simple as a name.
For veterans and all citizens, remembering the names and service of those who fought our nation’s wars and then participating in the development of our nation’s future not only honors those who’ve fought, but most importantly it solidifies that for which they fought.
Personally, I’ll honor those I served with and what they believed by remembering their names and passing along their deeds from Iraq. I won’t forget Adam low-crawling up to potential IEDs. I won’t forget Matt calling in air support even while being shot at with RPG’s. I won’t forget Mark’s voice ripping through the night, motivating a lackadaisical convoy. I won’t forget the calm in Ric’s voice as he talked an ambushed unit through a fire fight over the radio. I simply won’t forget most every experience with Rod who’s back there now training Iraqi soldiers.
And I’ll honor both Sterling and his friend, Corporal Duane Hoyle, by visiting Duane’s grave when I give my speech at Fort McPherson and letting him know that Sterling sent me.