It is autumn, and the air is crisp and cool at night at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
It gets very quiet at The Wall around midnight. The tourists have gone home, and are all tucked into bed.
A homeless Vietnam veteran patrols the black granite panels. He tells us that he has cancer and is having a hard time getting any benefits from the Veterans Administration. He lives in a mission that houses those who have nowhere else to go, but the doors dont open until 11 p.m.
He sees my interest in Panel 3-East, the third panel to the east of the apex of the memorial, and he asks if I was there at the Ia Drang Valley battles that contributed 305 of the names that are on that panel. I nod, and he grows animated. "Oh, I know these guys well. Or at least I know their names." He begins calling the roll to prove it: "Henry T. Herrick, John Geoghegan, Willie Godboldt, Travis Poss, Carl Palmer, Wilbur Curry, Thomas C. Metsker . . . ."
Twenty, then 30 of the names trip off his lips. "I tell people about them when they ask."
So do I.
We slip a few bucks into his hand for something to eat and he wanders off into the night, heading for the mission and a cot where he can rest his head until 7 a.m., when he and the other homeless are shooed out to begin another day of waiting for something good, finally, to happen to them.
I hope that he lives long enough to collect some benefits and get some medical help from the VA, although given the 6- 8-month backlog in processing veterans' claims, there's no guarantee that he will.
I stand before Panel 3-East and slowly scan those names, remembering their stories, their hometowns, their wives and children, remembering, too, how and where they died and what it all means.
Did they die so that a brother veteran can die waiting in line for a little help from the nation that sent them all off to war in the prime of their youth?
Did they die so that four decades later, an American president and his cronies could start another needless war in a far-off land, a war that to date has dragged on almost as long as the one they fought in Southeast Asia?
Did they die so that wounded veterans of that war could come home to a lot of "Welcome Home" greetings and a lot of "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers, but facing the same fight that America's veterans have always faced when they try to get treatment and benefits from our Army and our Veterans Administration?
Did they die so that an administration full of draft dodgers and draft avoiders and almost bereft of anyone who ever wore a uniform or heard a shot fired in anger could prance around presenting themselves as wartime leaders?
Did they die so that 10,000 craven politicians could stand on bandstands and make speeches full of empty praise for those who protect and defend this country and make empty promises of how they guarantee that our wounded, our new veterans, will be treated better than their fathers and grandfathers were when they came home from their wars?
The men and women who wear the uniform today are, many of them, on their fourth or fifth combat tours in Afghanistan or Iraq. They and their families do all the suffering and sacrificing for the rest of us.
Meanwhile over in the Pentagon, the bean counters run their computers and come up with the good news: The economic meltdown in America, the growing ranks of the unemployed, the complete lack of work or prospect of a decent future in the rural and urban backwaters of a great nation make for a boom in enlistments in our voluntary military.
If you sign on the bottom line because you have no other alternative, no other way out of nowhereville, are you really a volunteer?
The bands will play, and the old veterans will march proudly and the politicians will run their mouths this Veterans Day, just as they do every Veterans Day.
And the 400,000 dead of World War II and the 40,000 dead of Korea and the 58,260 dead of Vietnam and the 4,500 dead of Iraq and Afghanistan will rest silent and uneasy under the modest white marble tombstones that a grateful nation has provided them free of charge.
Across town, an old and ailing veteran of one of those wars will line up tonight for a cot in a mission and wonder whether he can live long enough to collect from the bureaucrats what we owe him.
On Army posts around the nation, the battalions and brigades and divisions are either just coming home after a year or more at war while other battalions and brigades are just saying their goodbyes and heading back out on their third or fourth or fifth deployments.
"Where have all the flowers gone?
Gone for soldiers, every one.
When will they ever learn?"