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Encounter at The Wall

David Epps's picture

It was a warm, sunny, Friday morning when I traveled to the Coweta County fairgrounds to see the half-size replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. I had been asked to give the invocation at the next day’s wreath-laying ceremony and I wanted to get familiar with the setting.

I had visited the real Wall in Washington, D.C., several years earlier so I didn’t expect the half-size version to have much of an impact. As I walked from the parking lot to the area where the Wall was located, I couldn’t help but notice all the school buses coming and going. I later discovered that between 1,200 and 1,500 students visited the Memorial on that Friday.

When the Wall came into view, I noticed a hush near the memorial where, outside the area, it had been quite noisy. And even though the Wall wasn’t full size, nearly 59,000 names on the Wall is still a sobering sight.

People were looking quietly for names of family, friends, or comrades and even the students, who couldn’t possibly have grasped the full meaning of the sacrifices represented, were respectful and silent. I glanced at the Wall as I drew closer, not looking for any names. Yet, out of the tens of thousands of names on the Wall, one jumped out at me: Kenneth P. Tanner.

I didn’t know Major Kenneth P. Tanner but I knew something about him. Major Tanner fought in the last major battle of the war between U.S. ground forces and the forces of North Vietnam.

The Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord was a 23-day battle between the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division and the North Vietnamese Army from July 1, 1970 until July 23, 1970. During the 23-day siege, 75 U. S. personnel were killed. The soldiers fought from four hilltops and were outnumbered by nearly 10 to one. Major Kenneth Tanner was killed on the last day of the battle. He was 31 years old.

I do not know what heroic actions Major Tanner performed but, whatever they were, they earned him the Silver Star, the third-highest combat military decoration that can be awarded to a member of any branch of the United States armed forces for valor in the face of the enemy. It is awarded for extreme heroism.

I didn’t know Kenneth P. Tanner. But I do know his son. It has been over a decade since I met Father Kenneth Tanner, who now serves as a priest in Michigan. Most of what I know about Father Ken’s dad I heard from his stepfather.

I knew that, after war’s end, Mrs. Tanner met and married a young minister named Randy Adler. Over time, Adler would become a priest, a bishop, and then an archbishop. Young Ken would be raised in a home that prepared him to become a writer, a theologian for his denomination, and a successful priest and pastor.

As often happens at the Wall, my throat grew tight and the tears began to fall from my eyes as I stared intently at the name of a man I never met. Finally, assuring myself that no one could overhear me, I began to speak to the man whose name was engraved in the ebony stone:

“I didn’t know you, Sir, but I want to thank you for what you did. I can only imagine what you went through during that long battle and what thoughts must have gone through your mind. I know that some of those thoughts were of your family. And, Major, I want to let you know that your boy turned out all right. You’d be proud of him, Sir. He, too, is a soldier — and a leader — but he serves in a different kind of army. He, too, is a courageous and honorable man. And you should know this — you have been remembered.”

Until that day, I thought my tears over those lost in Vietnam were over. More tears would be shed over the weekend as white-haired warriors sought peace at the black stone of the Wall. Hard, rough men wept openly as they, too, remembered.

And that’s the point. The wars are never really over, not for those who served and not for the families who lost their heroes. And that’s what the Wall is all about: remembering, healing, and carrying their legacy of freedom forward.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and is the mission pastor of Christ the King Fellowship in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org.]

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