In August, 1969, my 23-year-old mother drove west with her husband and their month-old son in their ’68 Volkswagen from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Back home to Kern County, after my dad’s year in Vietnam and honorable discharge from the Army, to make a home with her new family.
In the coming decades, my mom made that home, helped raise two sons and weathered the ups and downs, joys and sorrows of a typical American life. She welcomed two brides into the family as daughters, cared for other people’s children and settled into a well-deserved retirement with my dad. She’s the happy grandmother of four grandkids. She’s lived most of her life, a lifetime, since 1969.
In the month Mom was coming home on Route 66 to begin the next phase in her young life, a happy-go-lucky neighbor and Wasco High classmate two years her junior was beginning his tour of duty as a combat medic with the U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group, Vietnam.
Had he survived his tour, his story from that point wouldn’t have been the same as my mother’s, but probably wouldn’t have been all that different. I don’t know if he would have gone to medical school, or Bakersfield College, or to work as a Pontiac salesman. Maybe he would have married and had children and grandchildren. Maybe, having seen and done more than most people twice his age, he would have left his hometown behind and burned brightly across the firmament. Or perhaps simply made a quiet, honorable life in small-town Kern County. Maybe he’d have found a cure for cancer or maybe just vanquished the crabgrass. But no matter what twists and turns his life would have taken, he should have had a life, should have lived, like my mom, a lifetime beyond the year 1969.
After all, he was just 20 years old then, barely a grown man. Not old enough to vote or even take a legal sip of beer. But on December 1 of that crazy, climactic year, as my parents got ready for their baby’s first Christmas, at a time when this young man’s life with all its unrealized promise and possibility had just barely begun, it ended in an mortar attack in the Quang Duc Province of the Republic of Vietnam. And instead of Who’s Who in American Business or the minutes of school board meetings or the Family Practitioner section of the Yellow Pages, the name Stephen Leon Ragsdale is etched in Panel 15W, Line 014 of a long, black granite wall.
There are at least 1,006 other names that will join Sgt. Ragsdale’s on Kern County’s own Wall. Each one represents a life full of limitless potential that should have been lived to the fullest but instead was cruelly abbreviated. Each is a story never finished and never told. Like my mother, each should have experienced his share of successes and failures, love and loss, satisfaction and regrets. Each should have been entitled to graying hair, growing waistlines and the other unwelcome trophies of middle age. Each should have been remembered not only in faded photographs and eight millimeter home movie film and the failing memories of elderly parents and middle-aged siblings and high school friends, but in adult accomplishments and ceremonies and good times and milestones, and in the hearts of children and grandchildren. Although they achieved much, their lives were too short for any of their names to be engraved on a Lifetime Achievement Award. So let us, the people of Kern County, engrave them on something meaningful and lasting and worthy of their sacrifice, where we and our children can come and reflect on the meaning of service, the importance of gratitude and the fragility and brevity of life, and where we can let them know they are still not forgotten. Let’s all give what we can to finish the Kern Veterans Memorial Wall of Valor.
Kern Veterans Memorial Foundation