The Cost Of War

Veteran: Dennis Erlich
Artist: Michael Koulermos
Writer: Marshall Karp

There are 58,307 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

One of them, etched into Panel 14E – Line 53 of the polished black granite, belongs to my best friend, Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Dennis Ehrlich.

On January 19, 1967, sixteen days after his twenty-fifth birthday, Dennis was on a bombing mission when his plane crashed into the South China Sea.

His obituary stated that he left behind his parents, his brother, his sister, his wife, and his 19 month-old son.  

But I know first hand from the letters Dennis and I shared in his final months that he also left something else behind.

His dreams.

He would write to me — in longhand, on onion skin paper — about all the things he wanted to do when he returned to civilian life. A career, a home, roots in a community, more kids — ordinary things.  But if you knew Dennis and the irreverent and joyful way in which he attacked life, you knew that his life would be far from ordinary. 

We talked about growing old together, back at a time when old for us meant turning fifty.

Dennis’s body was never recovered. There were two memorial services. One aboard the USS KITTY HAWK, the other in a Dutch Reformed church in his hometown of Pompton Plains, NJ.

After his death Dennis was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and a Gold Star for heroism and extraordinary service in aerial flight. I still have a copy of the letter from the Secretary of the Navy commending him for his valor, his devotion to duty, and the sacrifice he made.

Dennis’s legacy is chiseled in stone on a wall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Generations from now, people will know who he was and what he did.

But for some of us — a mother who held her breath as a Navy chaplain walked up the front steps of her home, a young widow who lifted a small boy so he could kiss his Daddy’s name on a slab of granite, and a best friend who, 49 years later, still carries a keepsake in his pocket to remind him of the bond they shared — Dennis will always be remembered for the life he never lived.