Strolling through the mall with friends one day in 1998, I stopped at a Borders bookstore (who remembers those?). A stack of discounted books caught my eye, and it was there I thumbed through, and eventually bought, a coffeetable book called Offerings at the Wall: Artifacts From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection.
It’s a fascinating book portraying the carefully curated items left at the memorial and stored by the National Park Service since the space first opened in 1982. As I flipped through it, I was deeply moved by the letters, photographs, and other items such as flags, patches, and military medals.
This is a sacred place where vets, family members, and friends come to heal the wounds of a painful and divisive period in America’s history. In leaving objects and messages for names on that wall, those who do so hope to make peace.
How far would you go for forgiveness?
Once I got the book home, I studied the objects and captions that went with them. But it was pages 52 and 53 that struck me hard: a photo of a little Vietnamese girl and her soldier father with a letter. “Dear Sir,” it read. “For 22 years I have carried your picture in my wallet. I was only 18 years old that day that we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Why you didn’t take my life I’ll never know. You stared at me for so long, armed with your [weapon], and yet you did not fire. Forgive me for taking your life, I was reacting just the way I was trained.” The note goes on, but the writer concluded with three simple words: “Forgive me, sir.”
The soldier’s name was Richard Luttrell. Before returning to his platoon, he looked for valuables on the dead man’s body and found his wallet. Inside was the tiny photo of the soldier and his daughter. Richard took the photo and carried it in his own wallet for decades. Years later, as many Vietnam vets found some sense of absolution from leaving mementos from the war at the memorial, Richard tried to lay his guilt there as well.
In 2000, after retrieving the photo from the Memorial Collection, Luttrell journeyed back to Vietnam. Assisted by producers of the news show Dateline, who documented the trip, Richard found the girl, by then a 40-year-old woman, and returned the photo to her. He practiced a message in Vietnamese, expressing his sorrow, acknowledging her pain, and asking for forgiveness. In free-flowing tears expressed from the old soldier and the daughter of another one, the forgiveness that eluded him was finally given. Richard repented and sought a way to right his wrong. The woman, whose life he forever changed, offered mercy.
When we are weighed down by the messes we make, how far would we go for forgiveness? “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Our first step should always be to ask forgiveness of God and, of course, to ask it of the people we have wronged. But when it’s impossible to meet face to face, God’ assures us that as long as we make things right with Him, He will bless us with the peace we need to move forward.
We may not have to journey halfway around the world to make things right, but thank God we need only Him to be washed absolutely clean.
Wilona Karimabadi is an assistant editor for Adventist Review.