Some time ago I found myself in Washington, D.C., attending a series of meetings. After spending the entire day and evening inside several buildings, I was eager for some fresh air. What followed would be a night I’d never forget.
With me in Washington that evening was my friend, Roger Sherrard. Roger is a constitutional attorney and a dear man, now serving as principal at Sherrard McGonagle Tizzano, in the state of Washington.
It was 11 p.m. and I spontaneously asked Roger if he’d be interested in joining me for a run on the National Mall, that beautiful and open expanse of land that connects the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, bordered by the Smithsonian museums and punctuated by the Washington Monument in the middle. He readily agreed.
The night was crisp and the moon was full. It’s always inspiring to see such historic sites in our capital, but especially so when they’re backlit and deserted. We ran east to west, from the Capitol dome down toward the towering carved marble statue of Abraham Lincoln, our nation’s 16th president. I was thoroughly enjoying the outing when out of the corner of my right eye I caught a glimpse of the Vietnam Memorial, which is recessed into the hillside.
“Let’s run over there,” I suggested, pointing in the direction of the two black gabbro walls. I had never visited the memorial. My brother, Mike, had served in Vietnam, and thankfully came home uninjured. The way returning veterans were treated always bothered me. I had long wanted to pay tribute to the sacrifice of so many by visiting that reflective spot.
Hearing my suggestion, Roger at first didn’t respond. Instead, he just stopped in his tracks, bowing his head, and shuffling from side to side.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
”I can’t do it,” he replied. “I just can’t go over there.”
In the moonlight of the mall, tears began to fall from my friend’s eyes.
Roger, a West Point graduate, was a former Army Ranger, an Army Platoon Leader and Company Commander in Europe and Infantry Company Commander in Vietnam.
Standing there on the deserted trail, in the shadow of the memorial that contained the names of too many of his friends, Roger, in halting voice, shared with me his story.
At the height of the Vietnam War, a portion of Roger’s company had been dropped into a nameless rice paddy, only to encounter massive resistance from the North Vietnamese. Their helicopters had been shot out of the sky and their men cornered and held down by enemy fire. A brutal bloodbath ensued. The man next to Roger was shot and killed. Eleven other of his soldiers died that night. With God’s prompting, while pinned down, Roger and his men were able to take a hill and spent the night using positions dug by the North Vietnamese. It wasn’t until the next day that they were finally able to link up with the rest of their company.
Having been the commander of the mission, Roger felt responsible for every man who met his earthly end that night. Like a father to his sons, he loved and admired those soldiers. He was committed to protecting them. Now, he had let them down, he concluded, and years later, still struggled with the violent memory. There was nothing he could have done differently, but the pain of war doesn’t subside very quickly.
This coming Memorial Day, I’ll be thinking of those men in Roger’s command who paid the ultimate sacrifice. I’ll also be thinking of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who, throughout America’s history, have suffered and died – so that we could live in peace.
I thank God for the brave men and women of our Armed Forces, past and present, and I salute the courage and gallantry of my friend, Roger Sherrard. From those shed tears on the mall in Washington, history and a renewed appreciation of sacrifice came alive for me.
May we never forget that freedom is not free.
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