Memorial Day in the United States falls on the last Monday in May. The day honors service members who died in the line of duty while serving in the United States armed forces. Around each Memorial Day, I set myself time to visit various landmarks in Washington, DC, in quiet remembrance of the dead. Particularly moving is the Vietnam War Memorial. Of the 57,939 people remembered on the granite wall of the memorial, there is a brave Scotsman. His name was Alexander Chisholm.
Alexander was born in 1941 in Dumbarton Castlehill in the west of Glasgow and raised in Quarry Knowe. Obviously, he was a gregarious, intelligent and kind person, loved by his family and friends. I think of Alexander as a young boy and boy at Dumbarton Academy, working through his lessons and training as a young man to become an engineer at a local factory, with no idea what his future holds.
In his twenties, Alexander crossed the Atlantic and emigrated to Lindenhurst, New York on Long Island to join one of his sisters. America in the 1960s was full of energy, change and challenges. New York in the 1960s was surrounded by strikes and protests. The culture was teeming with a host of innovative and daring writers, artists and musicians. And if New York is often associated with an economy and overflowing opportunities, it experienced real economic and social decline during this period. As a young Scotsman, Alexander was captivated by what he saw and saw. He embraced America and came to learn more about it than the idealized version he developed from far away in Scotland.
Soon after arriving, Alexander made the difficult decision to join the United States Marines. He did so because he wanted to serve, but also because he was promised enlistment would accelerate his goal of American citizenship. He believed that citizenship offered him new opportunities beyond what had been offered to him in Scotland, as much as he loved the house. He enthusiastically signed on and informed his family of his decision. Alexander was visiting Scotland on leave and the gifts and the spirit he brought were remembered. As a navy, he was recognized for his skills as a leader and was promoted to the rank of sergeant. It was then shipped to Vietnam. Sadly, he was killed in a mortar attack in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province on September 10, 1967.
In addition to Alexander’s name on the Washington DC Memorial, it has a marker at Dumbarton Cemetery in Scotland. His 1967 funeral at the cemetery was attended by around 4,000 mourners, including many of his fellow soldiers who came to Scotland to be there because he was so loved and respected. This gathering of 54 years ago would have been moving and powerful. The sheer size of the assembly shows just how remarkable it really was.
One can stop at the modest white marker with black letters at Dumbarton or at the Vietnam Memorial to pay homage to Alexander and so many others. Behind each of the names chiseled on war memorials and plaques around the world, there is a story – a person like Alexander who possessed talents and skills, weaknesses and fears, loves and dreams, a family and a circle of friends. They are people, not just an arrangement of a series of letters and numbers set in stone, but human beings like us.
As we think about these stories we can meditate on the words of Scottish writer Neil Munro who wrote about those lost in World War I in “Lament for the Lads”: “Sweet be their sleep now where that they are far from the hills. from their house. While their lives were taken too soon under the tragic flag of war, their unwritten chapters live within us. We mourn their loss, we fight for a world without conflict, and a world where the desire for peace is a light that goes beyond the penchant for war that still lurks in the dark corners of some minds. We can also find practical ways to care for veterans and families in our local communities. In the UK, one can volunteer and support the Royal British Legion and the annual Poppy Appeal.
We can also pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the war by standing still as the sun sets on our faces on a summer day. We can breathe the air, smile, hold the hand of a loved one, and just whisper with gratitude for the precious moments of worms that are still offered to us. While they rest, we pay homage to them by paying attention to the splendours of life.
Ian Houston has spent his career in Washington, DC as an advocate for diplomacy, commerce, global poverty reduction, intercultural dialogue, and as a nonprofit leader. He is currently President of the Scottish Business Network (SBN) in the United States and SBN Ambassador in Washington, DC. He sits on the board of directors of the Robert Burns Ellisland Museum and Farm in Auldgirth and is the author of “Under Candle Bright”. His opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of SBN or Ellisland.