Now I Let The Tears Fall Freely

By Lieutenant Colonel Justin Constantine, USMC (Ret.)*

Although I didn’t know a0245bc0ny of the 58,282* names on The Wall, I probably took 10 steps before I started crying.  I was in high school, and as The Wall sloped and grew taller than me, I was overwhelmed by the names that never seemed to end. I remember being embarrassed by my tears, not understanding where they came from. I still cry every time I go back, but now I let the tears fall freely.

Today’s generation of service members – especially wounded warriors like me – would have so little if it weren’t for our Vietnam veterans. They suffered a deep dishonor and then vowed to never let it happen again. They work relentlessly on legislation to help all of us returning from war. Many of these vets mentor and take care of our wounded warriors in a way nobody else can. They truly welcome us home.

I can’t imagine the terrible conditions in Vietnam. But life in Iraq in 2006 was not easy either. Our constant foot patrols, combined with the intense heat and carrying 65 pounds of weapons and gear, made for long days. Every day presented a real danger of stepping on or driving over an improvised explosive device, engaging in deadly firefights with a determined enemy, or not making it into a bunker before incoming rockets and mortars exploded.

It was especially hard for those Marines rotating through the forward-operating bases; their Spartan  schedule was grueling. They fought with insurgents daily, had no running water, and their food was so bad that I still remember how happy they were when I handed them ketchup and mustard packets I had grabbed from our chow hall.

I remember a memorial service in our unit, not long after I arrived in Iraq. I stood in the back of the packed, stuffy room and looked down the aisle at the six sets of boots, rifles, helmets, and dog tags. I had seen these young guys hug each other before heading out on patrol – real hugs like they might not see each other again.

I asked the battalion commander how he dealt with memorial services for Marines who looked like they could still be in high school. He sighed, looked down, and said that it never gets any easier. And although it never gets any easier for me to think about it, I don’t want to forget those young men. And I don’t want to forget about our Vietnam veterans  – or for that matter, any of our veterans who sacrificed their lives for us. I don’t want the American public to forget either.

We are all lucky  that VVMF is building  this incredible Education Center at The Wall and expanding its scope to include today’s warfighters. On the day it opens, I will let the tears fall freely.

Rendering of the "Legacy of Service" exhibit.

Rendering of the “Legacy of Service” exhibit in the future Education Center. Renderings by Ralph Appelbaum Associates

I am proud and honored to be included with the Vietnam veterans, and hope that I live up to their high standards of courage, loyalty, and service.

*Lieutenant Colonel Justin Constantine recently retired from the Marine Corps with more than 16 years of active and reserve service. While on a routine combat patrol in Iraq, an enemy sniper shot him in the head, causing severe damage to his jaw and face. Today, as a widely acclaimed speaker on overcoming adversity, teamwork, leadership, and the power within each of us, Constantine in an inspiration to wounded warriors everywhere. He is a recipient of the Purple Heart, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Combat Action Ribbon, and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal.

*As of 2014, VVMF honors 58,300 on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 

This excerpt was taken from a compilation of Essays on Respect, compiled by Jan Scruggs. To donate to help build the Education Center at The Wall, click here.