Phil White paused recently at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Riverfront Park, gesturing to the names of the fallen beginning with “W.”
“Here, but for the grace of God, am I,” he said.
The bronze statue of the soldier looking out over the Russian Meadow is, like the men represented by names on the base, forever young, White said. Meanwhile, Vietnam veterans like him are getting older.
On Wednesday at about 11:30 a.m., some of them will gather as the notes of “Amazing Grace” pour out of White’s bagpipe. The music will float from the hilltop where the statue stands, down to the meadow below and across the river to the Spokane Convention Center. As he has for at least 15 years, White will lead a ceremony for fellow Vietnam vets at the monument shortly after the larger Veterans Day ceremony at the nearby Arena.
They’ll lay a wreath, place a long-stem blood-red rose at the foot of the bronze soldier and say a few words of remembrance.
When the weather’s good, he can expect about 60; when it’s bad – Wednesday’s forecast calls for rain and cool temperatures – maybe a dozen or so. But numbers aren’t what’s important. The act of remembering is.
“If we don’t continue carrying the torch, generations after us are not going to remember,” he said.
White was a 19-year-old combat medic based out of Chu Lai, Vietnam, for about five months in 1969, when a grenade exploded near the back of his head. He spent about 14 months recuperating in a naval hospital in San Diego but was left legally blind by the wounds. Now a part-time veterans’ advocate, musician and self-described “househusband,” White comes to the statue twice a year, on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
His trips on Nov. 11 started in 1993 or 1994, when a friend – “one of the old guys” from World War II – asked him to organize something for local Vietnam vets on the holiday.
At the time, the rift between the World War II generation and the Vietnam generation was easing. The WWII vets had come home at the end of the war in units, greeted by a cheering nation and local organizations like the VFW. The Vietnam vets came home alone as their war dragged on, and many had no interest in joining anything, particularly groups controlled by a previous generation.
Vietnam vets also were stigmatized by media portrayals that suggested they committed atrocities during the war, suffered from post-traumatic stress or could become violent at the slightest provocation. For years, they mainly kept to themselves, White said. But by the 1990s, the nation was recognizing their service and Vietnam vets were responding.
Those first years, they walked from the main Veterans Day service at the Spokane Arena to lay the wreath, and played recordings of “Amazing Grace” and taps. “The recording was so bad, it was one of the reasons I learned to play the bagpipes,” said White, who wears formal attire that includes a kilt.
In those early years it was possible to make the trek from the Arena service, which starts at 10 a.m., to the statue and arrive by 11:11 a.m., the time that the armistice was signed to end World War I. The war’s end was the origin of Veterans Day. But Vietnam vets are getting slower as well as older, White said; now they schedule the wreath-laying at the statue for 11:30 a.m.
The Vietnam War is fading in the nation’s memory, White said. Someday the names may be chipped off the base of the statue and forgotten, and the statue might even be taken down and put in storage, much like the old “eternal flame” from the original Veterans Memorial Coliseum was. White wants to keep that day as far off as possible.
“At least in my generation, it will be remembered until I die,” he said.