Memorial Day has always held a signiﬁcant place in my heart. It is more than just another federal holiday that translates into a three-day weekend, or the best time to shop for a mattress. It means more than that for me and my family.
For some who may not be aware, Memorial Day is set aside on the last Monday of the month of May to remember armed services members who have fallen or died in active duty for this country in a war or conflict.
The history goes back to when the Civil War ended in 1865 and freed African American slaves began the tradition of decorating the graves of African American soldiers and Union troops. Soon White Americans adopted this practice across the country. In 1971, Memorial Day became an ofﬁcial federal holiday.
The signiﬁcance looms large for me because my uncle, Sgt. Anthony Standifer of M Company, 3rd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Black Horse, USARV, was killed in action in Binh Long, South Vietnam. His tank was hit by a grenade on Sept. 7, 1969, one day after his 20th birthday. Two other soldiers died in that armored tank that day: Sgt. Leo Hartsuff and Sgt. Richard Jackson Swiger. My uncle would live for 11 days after the attack and died from his injuries on Sept. 18, 1969.
The loss of my uncle was profound for my grandparents, as I am sure it is for every parent who loses a child, especially in such a tragic, senseless manner. His graduation picture still hangs prominently on the living room wall as it did before he left for boot camp early in 1969.
It is that picture, and other family photos, that I often gazed upon as a young brown girl: of this handsome, playful and protective young Black man, so full of life, who one day would be only a memory of a war that should not have happened.
I do not harbor any animosity towards the Vietnamese soldier who threw the grenade that ultimately extinguished the life of my uncle and forever changed our family. In recent years, I have done extensive research on the Vietnam Conflict to get a better understanding of why America insinuated itself into what many scholars and historians have now coined “a no-win situation.” I continue to come up short on why my uncle and more than 58,000 young American men had to die. According to the National Archives, 7,243 of the Vietnam Conflict casualties were young Black men.
My father and my uncle both were in Vietnam at the same time. My father was severely wounded when his platoon accidentally stepped into a mine ﬁeld three months after the death of my uncle. It would take a letter writing campaign to President Lyndon Johnson and the heroic efforts of the iconic John Conyers to bring my father home from Vietnam.
I was just around 2 years old when all this mayhem and chaos ensued around me. My heart goes out to my mother and grandmother who were devastated by these events. My mother rarely speaks about those years or about her brother. My father never talked about his experiences in Vietnam, but in the last few years, he has opened up to me about what he lived through as a young Black man. I remember the nightmares he had … or still has. Sometimes he reminisces about uncle Anthony and the fun and laughter they shared. But I am sure he wonders how it is he returned home alive … and uncle Anthony in a flag draped casket.
My grandfather Frank kept all the correspondence from uncle Anthony and carbon copies of all the letters he typed and sent to Johnson, the State Department and Conyers. It was a wonderful gift to discover those documents when my grandfather died in 2010.
Reading through uncle’s letters from Vietnam was like walking back through time. He did not go into detail about his surroundings and activities in Vietnam, but he did write about how he hated killing, and hand-to-hand combat. He did not understand why he was being forced to kill people he did not even know existed until he stepped off the military plane in Binh Long. That was why he requested to be in the armored cavalry. He could not bear to look into the faces of those he was instructed to murder.
To read his words, and feel the pain, this had to be the mindset of many of the young people drafted to ﬁght in Vietnam. Uncle Anthony wrote about the racism of army life and the nonstop rain and mud of Vietnam. He had never been anywhere outside of Detroit, or Michigan, so the environment was all new to him: palm trees, jungle terrain. A young Black man snatched from home to ﬁght for something that was still elusive to most Black Americans. Anthony had seen the large tanks rolling through his neighborhood and down Eight Mile Road the previous year in the infamous Detroit Conflict. Little did he know that his fate would rest inside of one.
Over the years, I have supported the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Vietnam War Memorial fund. This year the annual Vietnam Veterans of America national convention will be held in Orlando, Aug. 8 through 12 at the Rosen Centre.
The Vietnam Veterans of America helped spearhead efforts to memorialize their fallen comrades with the Vietnam War Memorial wall. My son Kyle was able to see and rub the imprint of my uncle’s name when he visited the wall in 2021. My aunt and cousins were able to visit the wall to view Anthony’s name before the coronavirus pandemic.
The pictures my son and cousins captured were emotional for me because in his letters my uncle spoke about me, his “baby niece Tracey” from his “baby sister Tina.”
More than anything he wanted to be home with us, his family.
That is why Memorial Day means so much to families across the country. We remember because we cannot forget.
So, as you celebrate this holiday weekend, take a little time to remember to say a prayer for my family and all those that have lost a soldier in any of the wars and conflicts.
Post a flower on the virtual Vietnam War Memorial page. Let us know that you have not forgotten those who made the ultimate sacriﬁce. Visit: virtualwall.org/ds/StandiferAx01a.htm