by SSgt Bruce T. Forbes
(c) Copyright 1996 All Rights Reserved

(This was written to express my feelings while watching on television and through magazine the dedication of The Wall in Washington D.C.)

"What was some of the lingering effects of the American Civil War?" Thomas asked his students. A dozen eager hands shot into the air. "Jenny?"

"The way it tore families apart," the young girl replied. "There were a lot of families where some supported the North and some the South; brothers were fighting brothers on the battlefield. And even after the war the divisions remained."

Jenny's words now haunted Thomas as the bus he rode sped south towards Washington. "Why am I doing this?" he asked himself for the millionth time since he'd left Calgary.

Finally the bus was swallowed up by the city of Washington. Thomas waited until the other passengers debarked before hoisting himself up on his crutches and working his way down the aisle and off the bus. The driver already had his luggage out and attached its pull rope to one of Thomas crutches for him, and off he went to find a taxi.

The travel agent had advised Thomas that he'd be sharing his room that week; Washington was literally besieged that week by visitors coming for the dedication of The Wall. But he'd not given any thought to the fact that his roommate might be a veteran.

"Got any good stories of your own?" the ex-marine who shared Thomas room asked after spending an hour recounting his own campaigns.

"Not really," was Thomas' cool reply.

"Understand." The ex-marine took a bite out of his apple after offering Thomas one. "A lot don't like to talk even now. Hey, at least tell me where you lost your leg."

"Wheatfields of Alberta. Was stupid enough to fall in front of a harvester."

The ex-marine tensed and his eyes went ice cold. "What the hell you doing here?"

"I have two brothers to bury."

Thomas had checked the schedule for the Memorial Service and had planned to arrive at the National Cathedral ahead of time to hear his brothers' names being read. "I didn't serve in Nam," the talkative taxi driver announced as he drove his passenger up to the cathedral, "I was just a teenager."

"Average age in the war zone was only nineteen," replied Thomas; "They were all teenagers."

The cathedral was full; the reading of the names had been going on for several hours. Near the altar a soft, feminine Air Force sergeant was relieving a burly-looking Army corporal, picking up where he'd left off in the long list of names of those who'd died on foreign soil. Thomas held the hand of an old man next to him as the man broke into tears as he whispered: "My boy; that was my boy." The old man returned the favor as Thomas brothers' names were read a few minutes later.

Thomas watched the young woman who was reading the names. She's too young! he thought; Just a child when the madness ended. These are just names to her... But his thought was interrupted as the young woman's voice faltered but caught itself and continued. "That was her father's name," a woman in front of Thomas whispered to her neighbor; "She'd requested to read his name."

Thomas didn't attend the dedication of The Wall; he didn't feel it was right, considering his past. He'd go later, when the crowds were smaller. Instead, he was across the river, dressed in his new blue suit, laying flowers at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the remains of One who'd gone where Thomas had refused to go lay. "Is that you, Jay?"

Later Thomas stood in the Lincoln Memorial, gazing up at the statue of the man who said that "A nation divided against itself cannot stand." He though about the families he knew that were still divided. He thought about his own family.

Finally Thomas approached the Wall, looking down the Wall as it sliced into the serene parkland like an open wound, its mirror-shiny panels filled with names...
So many names...
So many boys...
So many lives...
So many left to live without those whose names were now carved in stone...

Thomas paused in his search of names as a young boy finished a tracing of what might have been a brother's or a father's name. The boy, a teenager like Thomas had been during the war, reached out and touched the name one last time before leaving in the comfort of a friend's embrace. For the boy this was not just a wall, but the gravestone of someone still very much alive in his heart.

Farther on, two veterans cried as they found the name of a mutual friend and remembered together.

A mother held up a child to touch a name on another panel as she told the child about Uncle Johnny.

A woman was quietly placing a wedding picture against another panel.

Tears were dripping down the cheeks of one of the ceremonial guards who stood a proud and erect guard over the names of two uncles he would never meet.

An old man dressed in an old but clean uniform leaned heavily on his walker as he stood straight and saluted a grandson s name.

Thomas stood at the center of the Wall; its deepest spot - from this junction the panels stretched out in either direction and seemed to taper and disappear somewhere in the distance. And here in the junction Thomas found one of the names he'd come to read.

"I'm sorry, Robby," Thomas whispered, his voice quivering with emotion as he reached out and touched the letters of his brother's name. He closed his eyes and could still see the day he'd organized a protest rally in front of the bus depot - everything had been peaceful until the group of draftees and their commanding sergeant came out to board their bus; that's when the egg-throwing began. Thomas hadn't known Robby was going to be one of them, and his last memory of his brother was the look on his face as he was covered with egg. A year later Robby was dead, and Thomas had spent the rest of his life remembering his last look at his brother.

As his tears slowed, Thomas heard a quiet voice behind him: "Jay's three panels up." He turned in surprise, and there stood Mark, wearing a gray pinstriped suit and looking very much like a company president.
"Long time," Thomas said, wiping a cheek.
"Knew you'd come. Waited all day."
"Did you?"

Mark nodded. "Nothing would have stopped you. I figured if you were still alive you'd be here." Their eyes locked, and a million things neither was quite ready to say passed between them. Then they blinked the feeling away and Mark continued. "Let's go see Jay."

They remembered. They laughed and they cried. And for the first time in many years, two brothers of a divided family were together as they recalled the past.

The time came that they stood back and made ready to leave. Looking at each other for a very long time, neither wanted to be the first to speak, but Mark finally broke the silence: "Mama would sure like to see you again."

"Wouldn't think so; not after the way they threw me out."
"Time changes a lot of things; puts them in a new perspective. Pa wants you to come home, too."
"I don't know..."
"It's their only wish anymore."
"I don't think so. Besides, I've got to be back to work in four days..."
"My jet can get us home before midnight..."
Thomas' eyes opened a bit more. "Your jet?"
Mark smiled. "The Air Force's, actually; they just let me play with it." This was the little brother Thomas had taught to ride a bike.

There was another awkward silence as Thomas pretended to study the ground. "Tommy," Mark whispered. Thomas saw tears in his brother's eyes. "You're my brother." Thomas looked down again. "Dammit, I love you!"

Thomas felt his brother pull him close and hug him fiercely, like on the day Thomas had pulled him out of the pond when he'd fallen in; a hug as fierce as Pa's hugs...

"I suppose I could cash in my bus ticket," Thomas finally whispered as he returned his brother's embrace.

With that, the brother in blue and the brother in gray left arm-in-arm. Well, Mark had an arm around the big brother who'd taught him how to ride a bike and bait a hook... and not to lean too far over the side of a boat or he'd fall in. They passed the Lincoln Memorial, where the brothers, now united, glanced at the figure of the man who'd fought to keep the Union as One. And to the side of that figure, the young sergeant who'd read Jay's and Robby's names stood, reading to herself the words of the man honored by that memorial:

"...with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds..."

(NOTE: the remark about the ceremonial guard standing guard over the names of two uncles is factual - I worked with an airman whose brother did just that at the dedication; one of the many military magazines got a picture and the family has it framed.)

SSgt Forbes can be reached at