Twelve men are kneeling and huddled in a circle. The camouflage, green and tiger stripe uniforms; faces painted brown, green, and black; and weapons strategically strapped over shoulders makes you think you are in a war zone. These are all Vietnam veterans, but this is not Vietnam. They are called The Last Patrol, and they are here on a mission. This group of Vietnam and Vietnam-era veterans performs a "Ceremony of Remembrance" all around the country. Their mission is to keep us from forgetting. They honor and remember their fallen brothers and sisters from all past wars and conflicts and those brave men and women who are wearing our country's uniform still fighting for the liberties that we enjoy every day.
The first time I experienced The Last Patrol was September 16, 1994, in Fort Myers, Florida. Ted Marshall, my husband, is a Vietnam veteran who served in the United States Air Force as a K-9 handler from 1970 to 1974. We were there that beautiful autumn day for the National POW/MIA Remembrance celebration. It was an especially somber event as The Moving Wall was also there. The Moving Wall is a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans National Memorial which is located in Washington, D.C., and it is etched with more than 58,000 names of those who gave their lives for our country in Vietnam.
Several members of the local chapter of Vietnam veterans knew Ted had not seen The Last Patrol's ceremony, and they anticipated his reaction. With a brother on each side of him, Ted stood in the front line of the crowd eagerly waiting for the program to begin. My husband was in good hands, so I positioned myself with my camera to get the best shots of The Last Patrol.
The loudspeakers blared, and we were propelled back in time to the 60s and 70s with music from that era, stirring words from President Johnson, and battle noise. The whoosh of the helicopters could be heard in the background. Then, The Last Patrol appeared through a haze of smoke. But those who had been in a war zone were now taking that walk again with most of their senses - they were seeing it, hearing it, and smelling it.
My heart broke when I looked over and saw Ted. His veteran brothers were holding him up. He was there again - in Vietnam - and his legs couldn't support him. The pent-up emotions from all those years of suppression were coming to the surface. He was drenched in sweat, his face was stone white, and the tears he'd held for so long were finally falling.
As the narrator continued to speak, The Last Patrol went through the motions of what could have been the last foot patrol as they were beginning to pull out of Vietnam. Suddenly, the men were all standing around a helmet on top of a rifle sticking in the ground. Taps were played, and each Patrol member stood, saluting proudly to give last respects to a fallen comrade. The Patrol concluded the commemoration with a brief introduction of their members, and then they all walked into the crowd to say "Welcome Home." I stood back and watched Ted as he embraced the brothers who had finally brought him home from his private place of pain. It was the place that only another veteran knows - or understands. It didn't surprise me when I learned shortly afterwards that he had been asked to join The Last Patrol with his K-9 partner, our German Shepherd, K.C.
My observation of the crowd that day and, more importantly, my husband, motivated me to take a look at my own patriotism. Through my early adult years, I lived a self-induced, "patriotically-sheltered" life. There were wars and conflicts being fought, but I remained distant. I guess I had convinced myself that since nothing ever happens on our soil, I was safe. I ignored the news because it was "too depressing." Unfortunately, that's still the mindset of so many people today - even after September 11, 2001.
My journey into the reality of what Freedom really means but, more importantly, what it costs, began September 16, 1994. Every time The Last Patrol performed, I went with them as their photographer. My eyes and heart were opened to the suffering and sacrifice of veterans and their families. Through tears, smiles, and embraces, they shared their "secrets" without uttering a word.
I have learned a very important lesson from my walk with The Last Patrol over these many years. Unless a person is put in harm's way, as all our veterans were and are today; and unless that person lives the life the veteran has to live during his or her time of conflict and after returning home ... that person will NEVER begin to understand how the veteran's life is truly affected.
I wasn't there in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq - or any war. I will never be able to fully comprehend the price that was paid for my freedom or be able to repay the debt I owe. What I can do is love and support those who have taken my place in Freedom's line by going down War's road for me. I can stand tall when the flag of our country is displayed and show respect for what the stars and stripes represent. I can do my part to make sure that the sacrifices made on this country's behalf are never forgotten.