Ian Houston

Memorial Day in the United States falls on the last Monday of May. The day honours military personnel who died in the performance of their duties while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Around each Memorial Day, I set time to visit various monuments in Washington, DC in quiet remembrance of the fallen. The Vietnam War Memorial is particularly moving. Of the 57,939 individuals remembered on the memorial’s granite wall there is one brave Scot. His name was Alexander Chisholm.

Alexander was born in 1941 in Dumbarton Castlehill west of Glasgow and grew up in Quarry Knowe. By all accounts, he was a gregarious, smart, and kind person who was beloved by his family and friends. I think of Alexander as a young boy and lad at Dumbarton Academy working through his lessons, and training as a young man to be an engineer at a local factory having no sense of what his future held.

In his twenties, Alexander crossed the Atlantic and emigrated to Lindenhurst, New York on Long Island to join one of his sisters. America in the 1960s was full of energy, change, and challenge. New York in the 1960’s was surrounded by strikes and protests. Culture was brimming with a host of bold innovative writers, artists, and musicians. And while New York is often associated with a brimming economy and opportunity, during this period it experienced genuine economic and social decay.

READ MORE: Ian Houston: Derided, bullied, but triumphant: the Scottish heroine who planted the seeds of freedom

As a young Scot, Alexander was captivated by what he saw and witnessed. He embraced America, and came to learn about it more deeply than the idealized version he developed from a far in Scotland.

Soon after he arrived, Alexander made the difficult decision to join the United States Marines. He did so because he wished to serve, but also because he was promised that enlisting would accelerate his goal of US citizenship. He believed that citizenship afforded him new opportunities beyond what may have been afforded him back in Scotland, as much as he loved home. He enthusiastically signed and told his family of his decision. Alexander would visit Scotland on leave and was remembered for the gifts and spirit he brought. As a Marine, he was recognized for his skills as a leader and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. He then was shipped off to Vietnam. Sadly, he was killed under a mortar attack in Quang Tri Province Vietnam on September 10, 1967.

In addition to Alexander’s name on the memorial in Washington DC, he has a marker at Dumbarton Cemetery in Scotland. His funeral in 1967 at the cemetery was attended by roughly 4000 mourners including many of his fellow soldiers who came to Scotland to be there because he was so beloved and respected. That gathering 54 years ago would have been moving and powerful. The sheer size of the assembly speaks to how remarkable it truly was.

READ MORE: Frederick Douglass: the slave who became a Scot. Ian Houston's Letter from America

One can stop at the modest white marker with black lettering in Dumbarton or at the Vietnam Memorial to pay tribute to Alexander and so many others. Behind each of the chiseled names on war memorials and plaques around the world there is a story - a person like Alexander who possessed talents and skills, weaknesses and fears, loves and dreams, a family and circle of friends. They are persons, not simply an arrangement of a series of letters and numbers etched in stone, but human-beings like ourselves.

As we think of those stories, we can ponder the words of Scottish writer Neil Munro who wrote of those lost in WWI in ‘Lament for the Lads,’ “Sweet be their sleep now wherever they’re lying far though they be from the hills of their home.” While their lives were taken too soon under the tragic flag of war, their unwritten chapters live in us. We mourn their loss, we strive for a world free of conflict, and one where the desire for peace is a light that overtakes the inclination for war still lurking in the dark corners of certain minds. We can also find practical ways to care for veterans and families in our local communities. In the UK, one can volunteer and support the Royal British Legion and the annual Poppy Appeal.

We may also pay tribute to those who have lost their lives from war by standing calmly as the sun breaks on our face on a summer day. We can breathe in the air, smile, hold the hand of a loved one, and simply whisper with gratitude for the precious moments of verse still afforded us. As they rest, we pay tribute to them by staying alert to the splendors of life.

Ian Houston has spent his career in Washington, DC as an advocate for diplomacy, trade, global poverty alleviation, intercultural dialogue, and as a non-profit leader. He currently serves as President of the Scottish Business Network (SBN) in the US and SBN Ambassador in Washington, DC. He serves on the board of the Robert Burns Ellisland Museum and Farm in Auldgirth and is the author of “Under Candle Bright.” His views do not necessarily reflect the views of SBN or Ellisland.