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John Merson Advocates for Daniel Weiss

John Merson Advocates for Daniel Weiss Picture

In mid-March, a group of five students from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business met me in Washington, DC to begin a project for Children of Vietnam, an NGO on whose board of directors I serve. At the end of three days of meetings -- mostly by video conference -- the students asked if I would take them to visit the Vietnam Memorial on the Washington Mall. I was thrilled with their interest in events that took place decades before they were born. At the Memorial, we found the names of two Marines from my platoon who were killed while I was in Vietnam. We talked about the controversy surrounding Maya Lin’s design for the Memorial: she was 21, a student at Yale, of Asian descent, and the Memorial lacked a heroic theme that would have glorified the war and those who served in it. Two slabs of black granite contain more than 58,000 names of the men and women who were killed during the conflict. One of the names is that of Michael Davis O’Donnell. And behind that name, as with every other name, there is the story of a life cut short.

Daniel Weiss, art historian, professor, college president, and now CEO of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, happened to read a poem written by Michael O’Donnell and was curious to learn more about the young man who had written it. He discovered a poet, a singer, songwriter, a young man who had postponed military service for as long as he could, and then entered it in the most dangerous way -- as a helicopter pilot who rescued soldiers wounded or trapped in the rugged mountains of Central Vietnam. From O’Donnell’s writings, we can see his growing realization that he was unlikely to survive his tour of duty in Vietnam. The job he was doing was simply too risky, day in and day out. Yet he kept writing, sharing his thoughts and feelings with his fellow pilots and hoping that perhaps someday his poetry would reach a wider audience and that he might not be entirely forgotten.

When his helicopter was shot down on a solo rescue mission he was not supposed to undertake alone, it was in an area where no one could go to retrieve his remains or those of the soldiers he had rescued. And so they were left in a mountain ravine for nearly three decades, until a farmer reported finding pieces of a plane’s wreckage. In March of 1997, Michael O’Donnell’s helicopter was found. Later he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in a spot surrounded by the gravestones of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Daniel Weiss’ story of Michael O’Donnell is the story of the American war in Vietnam, told through the life and writings of one very compelling figure, a young man who would have preferred to devote his life to writing and performing his songs. The long time lapse between his death and the discovery of his remains is illustrative of the long time it took the US and Vietnam to finally make a full peace in which both nations could work together to recover the remains of those missing in action. The long tail of war included finding the missing, cleaning up the sites contaminated by US spraying of toxic chemicals, and the provision of social services for children born with severe birth defects caused by exposure to these chemicals. None of the tasks will be completed for at least another decade. Yet the work has begun. As the US and Vietnam work together to build a final peace, the life of Michael O’Donnell inspires us to keep going.