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Monday, May 26, 2008

Dr. James Reckner-the meaning of Memorial Day personified

There are times when I am incredibly lucky. Actually, rather than luck, I believe more in synchronicity, the concept that explains the "meaningful coincidences" in our lives. This synchronicity manifested in my life in several ways last week, not the least of which was meeting Dr. James Reckner. Sitting down to write on this Memorial Day, with its solemn meaning in mind, I think not only about all those who have given their lives for our nation, but also Dr. Reckner for what he did while our nation wanted to turn its face away. He dedicated himself to preserving the memories of our war in Vietnam, and those who were not so lucky.

Yes, I said "our" war, and I'm speaking to my own generation, the ones who came along during the last reverberations of the "baby boom", the ones who were eyewitnesses of, and participants in, the profound political and social dramas of the 1960s. We were the ones who remember the black and white news footage of what our government preferred to call a "conflict", the protests, the weekly obituaries in our home town papers. And to me personally, during twenty-four years of knowing a certain Vietnam Vet very well, (better than he ever thought I did) it was very much "our" war, even though, amazingly, the subject was nearly taboo. Despite every outward appearance of successful readjustment to civilian life, the Vietnam war was, and surely still is, an ever present entity in his life. Although he is living, I think of him too, on Memorial Day.

Dr. Reckner, also, must think of the war every single day. During two tours of duty in Southeast Asia, as part of the "Brown Navy", he advised the government of South Vietnam on the finer points of Riverine Warfare. He went on to become a highly respected Professor of History at Texas Tech University, an acclaimed author, widely recognized historian of the U.S. Navy with an emphasis on Theodore Roosevelt's development of it, beginning with the Great White Fleet. He is also the Director of the Vietnam Center , the product of the Vietnam Project he began in 1989. After discovering how little existed, accessible to the public, in the way of information, memorabilia, and documentation of the experiences of individual men and women who served, he diligently set about to collect and preserve every bit of Vietnam War history he could find. Now the Vietnam Center's archives are a vitally important repository of what could easily have been lost or sadly ignored. This gem is also proof of what history teaches us: one individual can make a huge difference. He is, in every sense, a hero, but if I said that to him he would disagree.

Dr. Reckner is a modest, quiet man. Yet when he gets up to speak in front of a crowd you see the man who is so smart, articulate, and even funny, that he reminds everyone in the room of the best teacher they ever had, or wished they had. He's warm and natural, down-to-earth, a loving father and husband of many decades, so proud of his marriage and family. I found out that all the money he earns from public speaking is used to help young people in Southeast Asia go to college. He is as surely a hero to them, as he is to the mothers who have handed over to him such things as letters from the sons they lost in Vietnam, to be preserved for the nation, forever.

So how did I come to meet Dr. James Reckner? It was through the magic of synchronicity, or "meaningful coincidences". As the result of a seemingly chance phone call (which of course was not) it came to the attention of Michele Bryant, of the Theodore Roosevelt Association that my great-uncle Ross C. Anway had been a member of the crew of the battleship Wisconsin, part of Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet, one hundred years ago. (I wrote about this in my post on this blog, of 5/18/08, called "Time Travel in Tacoma".) That first event commemorating the Great White Fleet's visit to Commencement Bay was one of four, both private and public, I had the privilege of attending last week. I met Dr. Reckner at a reception on Tuesday, May 20th, the first night of three during which I was totally immersed in the history of the Great White Fleet. This included a private reception and fantastic program put on by the Navy at Terminal 30 on the Seattle waterfront, and culminated in a public reception at the Museum of History and Industry, known as MOHAI. It was there that I had the opportunity to speak more with Dr. Reckner, or "Jim" as he called himself, and to buy his unique and fascinating book, Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet . It was an unforgettable week.

What I will never forget is meeting this man who also, "will never forget", about the Vietnam War, its veterans,their stories, and the tremendous significance all of these have in our nation's history. That is why he seemed the perfect subject for my blog on this Memorial Day, 2008. Now we are involved in another "unpopular" war. It will have it's own legacy. But to all Americans who remember Vietnam, the vets, their families, the Vietnamese people,to all of you who ever read a newspaper or simply lived and breathed then, I have this simple message: when Memorial Day comes around, REMEMBER. Dr. Reckner has made sure our nation will never forget.

Note: photo of Candace Brown and Dr. James Reckner at MOHAI, May 21,2008, courtesy of Maryann Huang

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