On March 25, 1966, a young man from Wyoming was killed by a sniper in Vietnam. His name was Philip Owen Robinson. Phil was in the Navy with my dad, they were dear friends, and every Memorial Day, I think about Phil.
According to legend (stories told to me by my mom), Phil was the first person to discover she was pregnant with me. Phil was also the only individual who ever got away with asking my mom if the chocolate mousse she’d made from scratch for dinner was Dream Whip. Anyone else making that joke would most likely have earned a stern glare. But with Phil, my mom just laughed.
Philip Robinson wanted to be a teacher. He was a gangly kid with a sweet smile who joined the Navy and died thousands of miles away from Wyoming in Quang Ngai, his life snuffed out by a sniper’s bullet. Phil was 28 years old.
There are a lot of names on the Vietnam Memorial, 58,276 to be exact. Including Phil Robinson at Panel 6E Line 50. My dad took me to the Wall quite a few years ago, and he found Phil’s name. I stood back, watching my father’s hand shake as he reached out to touch letters carved in stone. That day, a group of bikers were there, honoring their friends who had died in Vietnam. They saw my father, and lowered their heads. Someone put a small teddy bear underneath a name. Flowers placed earlier were wilting. I heard sobbing.
We forget, I think, what Memorial Day is truly about. We see mattress sales and barbecues and beer and somewhere, the real meaning of the day gets lost. Memorial Day is for remembering, for honoring, the men and women who have died serving this country.
Philip Owen Robinson wanted to be a teacher. The names on the Wall represent people who wanted to be nurses, doctors, lawyers, mechanics, writers, athletes, teachers, so many things. Nearly sixty thousand names.
Our country was created with a war, a war in which my ancestors fought. War is, sadly, in our DNA. George McGovern said “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.” Perhaps Memorial Day could also be about understanding that when one of those old men champions a war, or says we need “boots on the ground” there are people who will go to war, people wearing those boots. And sometimes, those boots are all that’s left.