2019 Winning Scholarship Essay: John GrassoJillian Decker
Name: John Grasso
Hometown: Hammonton, NJ
High School: Hammonton High School
College: Rowan University
As we waited for the memorial tour, my grandparents (Grammy and Bobbob) and I sauntered past the Huey helicopter posted brazenly in front of the museum. Immediately, I was struck with the magnitude of the conflict we were about to rediscover. Young kids, eighteen and nineteen years old, had to fight under those behemoths. Immediately I knew this day would be life-changing, but at that point I had no idea how. I just knew we had to find him.
Our tour guide led us past the War Dog Memorial, confessing he had a soft spot for dogs and therefore did not know how he would react to talking about it. He explained ho the tours are cathartic for him and the other veterans, and that speaking helps make things easier. He took us down the path laden with intermittent trees, symbolizing the U.S. marching patterns through Vietnam. It was a sunny day, albeit cold and windy. The air was free and wild, and the tunnel to the memorial seemed a heaven-sent reprieve from the biting cold. Unbeknownst to me at that time, that tunnel would transform my perception of the world. And so we walked.
We entered the tunnel, and the air suddenly became constrictive. Every single man, woman, and child on that tour felt the tension in the air thicken. We were no longer walking down a brick path, lined with trees and engraved pathstones, oh no – we were entering a tomb. Where was he?
Suddenly, every footstep became careful, echoing in the tunnel, seemingly increasing in amplitude as we heard the rushing wind behind us, and the eerie silence in front of us. Our tour guide stopped us for a moment: “We’re going to walk in this tunnel and out the other,” he explained, “because in Vietnam you could never walk the same path twice.” What little comfort there was in the stone corridor left with his words, and I realized the true horror those in Vietnam must have felt. As humans, routine can be comforting, and realizing that one could not even rely on the same path twice made me reconsider all the comforts of my own life. How the minutiae of brushing my teeth, making my bed, and washing my face were all delicacies compared to life in Vietnam. The stones breathed cooly on our shoulders. The wind screamed at us from behind. But we moved forward, into the wall.
Silence. My first impression of the memorial was the silence it laid over us. The wind was rushing outside, but inside only a dull whisper prevailed. The wall stood as our protectorate, offering not only a physical silence, but a deafening presence that produced a quietude in the soul. The black shining panels snuffed out any outside thoughts, feelings, or states-of-mind. All I could picture was loss, grief, and the pain those poor families must have felt when they got the call.
We walked gingerly towards the Red Oak in the center, towards the one-and-a-half sized statues. The gentleman on the ground caught my eye first, the grimace of a man who knows his fate and has accepted all that is the beyond. I felt his pain, his loss, the infinite possibilities for what he could have been cut down by war. Next to him the nurse, then the gentleman standing upright, both caring for him yet realizing it was already over. Seeing the agony on their stone faces made me feel, at once all the terror and sacrifice of Vietnam. True recognition of the horrors of war emanated from their opaque eyes, then traveled through mine. In a surge of emotion, I felt the pain inundate my brain, trying to comprehend all the casualties and lives lost and affected. Just as quickly, the feeling soared to my heart, feeling the pain. It made me feel truly vulnerable, truly exposed – truly human. That is what we all are after all, right? Human. The statues may have been inanimate but the emotion they awakened in me was very much alive.
Still shaken from the statues, we climbed the double helix stairs to reach the wall itself. Like an omnipresent giant, it hugged us from all sides and kept out the still roaring wild. The closer I got to the wall, the less wind I felt, and I couldn’t help but focus on the names. Every name had a person, had a face, had a family. Every young man on that wall went off to another side of the globe, none of them realizing how much they had already done for the last time. All the things we take for granted today, a trip to the grocery store, walking the dog, having a catch with a brother or a friend. How many of these things had these men not realized they had done for the last time? This epic abbreviation of their lives had me take a step back and look at my own life. I had stayed in the night before, spending time with my family. My brothers and I (there are four of us total) played together, spent time together, and in actuality took each other for granted. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t see any one of them again, and suddenly another wave of emotion came over me – this time, gratitude. Each of these men went out into the world, at my age, forfeiting his future, his wife, his kids, his white-picket-fence, all so my brothers and I could have our own. And for that, I cannot express the consuming gratitude I feel for those who served, or giving me this opportunity to succeed.
Our tour guide explained to us that one woman, Eleanor Grace Alexander, was on the wall, so we went to her panel first. Her unique bravery stood out in a world dominated by men, and her courage made an imprint on my life. We spent a while there, listening to the guide rattle off facts abut Ms. Alexander. However, I could tell Grammy’s mind was somewhere else. She was intrigued, sure, but there was someone else she had to see. As the rest of the group went on, Grammy, Bob-Bob and I lagged behind. We had to find him.
The days passed us by, and it felt as though we were travelling in time. We walked backwards, past December 15th, 14th, 13th, 12th… stop.
December 12th, 1969
There he was.
The reason we came.
We found him.
The man that volunteered, that left our family to join a bigger one, to be a part of something bigger than himself, bigger than any one of us.
The man who sacrificed it all.
We stopped. We watched. Kenneth DeMore Jr., Grammy’s brother. The three of us stopped for a moment, still as statues. We looked at the name, etched in stone, all that remained of a member of our family. I never got to meet him. I pinned a face to his name based on old pictures, but the memories weren’t – couldn’t be – there. I imagined how he talked, if he was confident or reserved, loud or quiet, opinionated or neutral. I imagined how he would have played a role in my life, how he would have watched my cousins, brothers and I grow up, and if he would have had a family of his own. How many cousins will I never get to meet, birthdays will go uncelebrated, weddings and holidays passing by like the ticking of a pocket watch, without so much as a hiccup of the rhythm in mourning of the ones we never had a chance to lose. Those are the unrepresented casualties of Vietnam – all the lives that never got a chance to be, all the potential washed away like the tides of the South China Sea. Kenny gave that future up for us, for all of us. He sacrificed his birthdays, his wedding, his Sunday football and afternoon walks. Everything that there is to cherish in life, he gave up, so that we may sleep in peace at night knowing that we’re safe. And not just he, but the thousands of other men and women who died, who sacrificed their lives for something worth standing up for. Disillusionment spun around in my head like a monsoon, crashing and breaking with the head novel realization of the ripple effect caused by the calamities of war. How many men had fiances or girlfriends waiting at home? How many children lost their dad? How many mothers would never see their sons anymore? When the black car pulled up, it might as well have been the grim reaper coming for the souls of the parents of the dead, for after losing a child one can never truly be whole again. These thoughts were suddenly interrupted by Grammy’s voice.
“Here he is. Go ahead John, get an etching.” I held a piece of paper up to the wall, as Bobbob started rubbing a pencil over it to preserve Kenny’s etching and memory. His name and dates of birth and death were too spread out to fit on one paper, so we had to split it up. On one paper, it read “Kenneth” along with the date of his birth. I thought that was curious, as the sheet with his birthday and given name symbolized the person he was known as to his family and friends. An energetic boy always down for an adventure and a roll in the mud. A caring person who would do anything for his family, and loved them dearly. That was Kenny.
And then there was the other paper – “Demore”, along with his date of loss. To me, that represented the man he had to become for his country. There was less of an intimate relationship with the surname, and the date of death is how he was categorized on the wall. This was not Kenny the friend, son, and brother, this was Private Demore, the soldier.
Somehow the granite felt colder for the second etching.
Kenny died shortly before Christmas, and never saw the cards his loving family mailed to him, as he was waiting until Christmas day to open them. It wasn’t until the car ride home that Grammy showed me some of the pictures she had taken. She showed me the trees, the War Dog memorial, and a picture she took of me doing the etching of the wall. She paused at this last photo, clearly looking at it very closely.
“Look at the wall,” she said to me. “Just there – next to Kenny. Look at the wall.” So I did. Looking next to Kenny’s name in the dark granite I saw the shape of a man. He was standing at attention, eighteen years old. He had a bright future, infinite possibilities before him. Thinking at first I must have seen a ghost, I took a closer look at his barely distinguishable facial features. Suddenly I realized I recognized the man in the wall. It was my reflection. In this epiphanic moment, all of the various facts and figures regarding the Vietnam War came together within me to create a sudden sense of understanding – it was me. All of these young men who were drafted or who enlisted, all of the brave souls who fought overseas, these young adults who made the ultimate sacrifice – all could have been me. They were not hardened soldiers bred from birth to be war machines – they were kids like myself who found themselves thrust into battle, with too many of them ultimately losing their lives. They saw unimaginable atrocities, then returned to a hostile homeland that did not properly welcome them home. These people deserved more.
As we left the memorial, Grammy pulled out a manila folder and handed in to me. I opened it, and found inside letters, all from Private DeMore. One excerpt struck me to my core. On October 7th, 1969, Kenny wrote to his parents. He said:
“Mom and Dad, if we miss one of these booby traps and it goes off, and I get killed or something, I just want you to know I love you. You gave ma good life and were good parents, okay?”
He, like the other 1,562 people from New Jersey, never planned on dying. He just wanted to come home.
And so Uncle Kenny, I dedicate this letter to you. I want you to know that your sacrifice does not go unnoticed nor your loss ungrieved. I want you to know that it was you, along with the other U.S. Army soldiers,
who gave me a good life, thanks to your heroism and dauntlessness. Kenny wrote that he “[didn’t] think the rain was ever going to stop” in Vietnam. He died shortly after.
Kenny, I’m here to tell you that the rain has stopped. The sun came back out, and because of the heroes like you who gave it all, I think it’s going to be sunny for some time.
John is the recipient of one of two $2,500 scholarships awarded by the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation to further his education at Rowan University. He will be reading his winning essay during the May 27th Memorial Day Ceremony at the Memorial.