PHOENIX — Former U.S. Navy specialist Ron White paid tribute to the 2,200 servicemen and women killed during the ongoing Afghanistan mission by writing their names on a specially constructed wall at Chase Field during the Arizona Diamondbacks’ doubleheader against the Texas Rangers on Memorial Day. He did it from memory.
Air Force Master Sergeant Evander Andrews was first on the list.
Army Ranger and former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman was No. 127.
White doesn’t know the last name yet, although maybe someday …
“I wish I could give you that name, because (that would mean) nobody has died in the last two months,” White said.
White has completed the project three times before — in his home town of Fort Worth, Texas, in February, in front of the Alamo in San Antonio in March and in New York City’s Times Square in April.
The effort inevitably attracts an audience. He brings 10 folding chairs and leaves them nearby. Some ask if he can point out a name: Someone’s daughter, someone’s father. Some have tears blurring their vision.
“I had a grandmother pull up a lawn chair and sit for two hours and watch me write her grandson’s name. I’ll turn around and they’ll tell me their story, who their son or daughter or grandson was. Where they were. How they died,” White said.
“It’s a way to pay tribute. One of the things that was an inspiration of this project … you always hear people say, ‘You are not forgotten. We will never forget.’ I kind of wanted to make that literal. I literally have not forgotten.”
White, a memory expert and former intelligence specialist in the Navy from 2002-10, got the idea when visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., following his tour in Afghanistan. He wondered what shape an Afghanistan memorial would take. Then he decided to make one himself.
He uses an intricate system to commit the names to memory. White assigns a number to various objects in Fort Worth. The desk in his condominium is No. 1. His microwave. His toaster. Then he goes outside, to the cash register in the neighborhood bookstore. A magazine rack. A chair. He assigns a name to each number, and he is able to recall the names by associating them with a place on his map. White said it took him 10 months to get it memorized.
“When I write the wall at the Diamondbacks game, I am going to be taking a walk around Fort Worth in my brain,” White said.
White’s 50-foot-by-7-foot wall is a portable, black dry-erase board that he carries with him. It takes about 10 hours to write the 2,200 names on the wall, and a friend originally contacted the Seattle Mariners about the project. They passed.
A Rangers season-ticket holder, White noticed that the doubleheader in Phoenix on Monday provided an ideal time frame to complete the project.
White, 39, said there was nothing special about his deployment. He is safe and sound, he said. Nothing really to talk about.
It is the response from those who have lost loved ones that makes the project worthwhile. Many have used his website, americasmemory.com, to tell their story.
“Every time someone just happens to be walking by the wall, they stop dead in their tracks. It is something they live with every day and don’t realize that a stranger has taken the time to remember their names,” White said.
“They say they are helping keep my son’s memory alive. That is really gratifying.”