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How one veteran pays tribute to troops killed in Afghanistan

In a personal tribute to those who died in the Afghanistan war, Navy veteran Ron White memorized every name and rank in order to write them in a single undertaking.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And now our final story on this Memorial Day, a personal tribute to American soldiers who have died in the Afghanistan war.

    It comes to us from the United Services Automobile Association, or USAA, an insurance and financial services company which serves military families. They produced this look at Navy veteran Ron White, who's taken the extraordinary step to memorize the names of all those who died in Afghanistan, and will write them all on a wall.

  • RON WHITE, U.S. Navy Veteran:

    When I returned from Afghanistan, just one of my thoughts, the general public has no idea the scope of the sacrifice that so many families and heroes made.

    If I was a painter, I would have painted a portrait. And if I was a singer, I would have written a song. It only made sense to use my memory.

    I memorized every one that died in Afghanistan. And I memorized them in the order of their death, 2,300-plus people, ran, first name, last name. It's over 7,000 words.

    It was just my way to honor them, to say you were significant, your life was important, and we honor you, and we're not going to forget you.

    Every few hours, somebody will walk by that wall and remind me, this is not just 7,000 words. This is their son or daughter.

    February 28, 2013, was the first time I had ever, ever done this. I was writing on the wall, and I heard the name Austin Staggs. And I kept writing. Then I heard somebody in the crowd say Austin Staggs again. And I kept writing.

    And, finally, I turned around and I said: "Ma'am, that's a name that's on my wall. Do you know Austin Staggs?"

    And she said: "Yes, I do. He was my grandson. And I came out here to see you write his name."

    I said, "It's going to be about four hours before I get to his name."

    And she said, "Well, I will wait."

    And we got her a chair, and she moved that chair down behind me for four hours. And, finally, I got to probably three minutes away from writing his name. "I'm sorry it took me so long."

    She said: "I'm glad it did, because mom is here now. She drove out here. And it gave her time to get here."

    So I stood there at the wall. And I wrote his name with his mom and his grandmother standing behind me. And it was emotional for me. It was emotional for them. I gave them a hug.

    And the mother said, "Thanks for not letting people forget about my son."

    I do, do it to keep their memory alive. And that's the primary reason, but I have become a better person by learning these stories of these selfless acts.

    I have heard so many different stories. There was a girl who came. I don't know the name specifically. I was writing and I was so distracted. She said, "Is this name on the wall?"

    I said, "Yes, he is."

    And I took her to the wall and I pointed to the name. And she just started crying.

    And she said: "You know, he was a big guy. He was a big, strong guy. My brother was a little guy. And they had to go on this mission. And whenever they would go out, he would carry his backpack, but he would also carry my brother's backpack, because my brother was a little guy. Not only that. He would go and walk in front of my brother."

    And she said: "Because he did that, my brother is alive today, and he lost his life."

    And I was so caught up in the wall, I didn't really focus on the name. And then she left. And I thought about it. And I thought, man, I wish I knew that guy's name. And then it hit me later on that night. It doesn't matter that I don't know the name, because that's the story of all of them. All of them carried our backpacks. All of them went before us. And all of them made that sacrifice, so that we could live.

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