Saturday, March 2, 2013
It was a solemn scene Thursday as U.S. Navy veteran Ron White stood at a black wall in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, and wrote in white the full name and rank of each of the 2,200 military members who had died in Afghanistan.
What made the act even more moving was that White had no list. He had memorized the 2,200 names and ranks, more than 7,000 words.
"A couple of years ago, I was looking at the Vietnam Wall and just started thinking, 'What's the Afghanistan memorial going to look like?'" White told ABCNews.com. "Then I started thinking about that, and I thought, 'I wonder if I could memorize the Vietnam Wall' and that evolved into 'Wait a minute, why don't you memorize the names from Afghanistan? That's the war you served in.'"
White, 39, did a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2007.
"Then I just set out to memorize all the names," he said. "The message I wanted to say is, you guys are not forgotten. I'm going to do my part to keep your memory alive, and so that is the message of the wall. You are not forgotten."
White doesn't have a photographic memory, but he is a two-time USA Memory Champion who has made memorization his business over the past 22 years. He teaches a memory class and speaks professionally about how to improve memory.
He began working on memorizing the 2,200 names in May 2012, using the centuries-old loci method ("loci" is Latin for "place").
"Essentially, what you do is you memorize a map of your city, your town where you live," White said. "So there's 2,200 service members who paid the ultimate sacrifice. So that means I memorized 2,200 locations in my hometown of Forth Worth, Texas."
The locations included places and sign posts like stop signs, trees, walls, pictures, restaurant booths and restaurant cash registers. He then took each name and turned it into a picture that reminded him of that person, and he visualized a name at each location.
"When I was at the wall, I simply stood at the wall and took an 11-hour mental walk around downtown Fort Worth and wrote out the names," White said. "I was very, very, very focused on the wall, but I was also very conscious of what was going on behind me. It was a very solemn, emotional day. People were just standing there in silence."
As he wrote, White said he kept hearing a woman mention the name Austin Staggs in conversation, one name among the lost soldiers.
"Finally, I turned around and I said, 'Ma'am, did you know Private First Class Austin Staggs?'" White recalled. "And she said, 'Yes, he was my grandson, and I'm going to stand right here and watch you write these names until you get to his name.'"
White told her it would be close to three hours before he reached Staggs' name, but the woman said she would stay. And she did.
"I enjoyed watching him write the names," Staggs' grandmother, Marion Buckner, told ABCNews.com. "It just gave me chills, really. You see how many families are affected."
Staggs was in a group of six soldiers who died in Afghanistan on Nov. 29, 2010. He was 19 years old. He left behind a son who is now 4 years old.
"He doesn't look so much like Austin, but he has ways like him," Buckner said. "You see him and remember Austin vividly."
Buckner said her daughter, Staggs' mother, arrived at the wall just before White wrote her son's name.
"It just did my heart good when I saw [White] writing his name. It just really made me feel like he really cared about these boys. He had respect for them," said Buckner.
"It was just so personal," White said. "When I wrote out 'Private First Class Austin Staggs,' I was so emotional my hand was shaking."
He said that scene replayed itself again later in the day when a man arrived and said he'd heard about what White was doing on the radio and came to the wall to see his son's name.
White plans to travel with the project around the country, doing the same thing in other cities. He wants to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that helps wounded service members adjust to civilian life, and he encourages people to donate to the group.
"It was such an emotional day, and it was my way of paying respect to these men and their families, letting them know that, yes, the world has gone on and that's why this sacrifice was made, so the world could go on, but I haven't forgotten," said White.