My life changed on April 29, 1975.

I was a senior in high school at Marshalltown, Iowa, and we anxiously listened to the news coming from Vietnam. My boyhood friend and fellow Eagle Scout from Troop 310, L/Cpl. Darwin L. Judge, was a Marine security guard who was killed during an attack on Tan Sun Nhut Air Base outside of Saigon early that morning. Next to him was Cpl. Charles McMahon from Woburn, Mass. They were the last two killed in action in that long war.

As I was preparing to graduate and take on the world, I learned that liberty comes with a price. When I heard the news I was working at Randall’s Grocery and went to the back of the store and cried like I never had before.

We had a memorial service at the high school gym that May, but their bodies were not returned to their families until early in 1976. I was unable to attend the service and burial because I had enlisted in the U.S. Army, but over the years I spent time with his parents, Henry and Ida. They lost their other son, Loren, to complications from serving in Southeast Asia after the war. They never wavered in their love for this nation, and we shed tears together to the day they were laid to rest next to Darwin overlooking the rolling land of the Hawkeye State.

As the Vietnam Wall visits Kosciusko County today through Sunday, we remember the 58,220 Americans who paid for freedom with their lives; 1,606 are still missing in action. Their fathers, mothers, siblings, spouses, family, friends and comrades will come to spend time, shed tears and remember.

We also take time to honor our Vietnam-era veterans. They served when citizens were mainly drafted, some bearing the scars of war. There were no parades. There was no post-traumatic stress disorder. Some died from wounds of war, suicide and exposure to Agent Orange. Though their names are not engraved on the stark blackness, we remember them and their loved ones as well, and honor those who are still living.

Some Vietnam veterans were treated with contempt like no other in our history. My friend Mike served in the Army 1st Infantry and came home wearing civilian clothing. He was told not to mention his service to anyone. Thinking he was safe after landing in Des Moines, Iowa, he took a cab to get to the bus station. The cab driver asked him where he had been and Mike told him Vietnam. Next thing he knew he was standing in the rain with his bags as the cab drove away.

This was not an isolated situation, as others were spat on or treated poorly by protesters whose right they had defended.

I get up each day and see an aging face looking back at me in the mirror, and at times say, “You got many more days than Darwin.” Ronald Reagan noted in a speech on Veterans Day in 1985, “Most of them were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives — the one they were living and the one they would have lived. When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers. They gave up their chance to be revered old men. They gave up everything for our country, for us. And all we can do is remember.”

History will long cuss and discuss the Vietnam War. Our government is accountable for its decisions to send our young men and women into battle. But our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should never be held in contempt for their service when our nation calls. Vietnam veterans are the best America has to offer, a national treasure of duty, honor and country along with all veterans in our history.

We need to honor and remember by challenging ourselves to live our lives mindful of their sacrifice and service. We should not squander their payment of blood, sweat and tears as we continue to strive to be what Lincoln called the last best hope of the earth. Daily we should thank God, the Author of liberty, for the blessings we take for granted that others around the world dream of. But it comes with a price. The blackness of this monument reminds us of this cost.

When the children of Israel crossed the Jordan, Joshua had them place a marker of 12 stones to remind them of God’s power and leading into the promised land. He shared that one day someone would ask, “What do these stones mean?” The Bible then notes why the stones were placed: “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.”

There are those who will visit this Wall who were born after the Vietnam War. They see aging Americans who wear hats noting their service. The Wall is a reminder that there was a time when Americans served in a costly, controversial war as their nation called. There are Americans responding to that call today. May all be reminded that we should always fear God in this nation and that His powerful Hand sustained us in those difficult days and will do so today if we trust Him.

Lastly, when you view the wall, see loved ones mourning or take an etching from a name, never forget, “Freedom Isn’t Free.”

To our Vietnam Era veterans, those living and in eternity, “Thank you.”

Ken Locke is community ministries director of The Salvation Army in Warsaw and director of the Greater Warsaw Ministerial Association. Have ideas for this column? Go to