Navy vet pays homage to Afghan war dead by writing all 2,200 names on a wall - from memory

Posted Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Ron White will never forget the American armed services men and women who have died in Afghanistan.

"When I say that, I really, really, really mean it," he said.

White was so serious about that promise that he memorized those heroes' names, in chronological order of their deaths. A memory champion whose ability has landed him on several TV shows and newscasts -- he set the world record at 1 minute 27 seconds for memorizing a shuffled deck of cards, for instance -- White spent 10 months on the task. That's almost 2,200 names so far.

Writing the names from memory, in public, on a 50-foot-long dry-erase-board wall is White's homage to those men and women and a way to raise awareness of the Wounded Warrior Project.

"Master Sgt. Evander Andrews is the first one," White said. "The last name is one who died Jan. 20, Sgt. Mark H. Schoonhoven."

White debuted his Afghanistan Memorial Wall Thursday in downtown Fort Worth's Burnett Park. He plans to assemble the wall and write the names in several cities around the country this year. He said his next stop will be New York City in March. And at each stop he'll direct people to the website, where there's a link to the Wounded Warrior Project website.

Starting around 8 a.m. Thursday, White said he hoped to finish about 5 p.m., when he and his crew were to break down the wall and haul it away.

The longer White worked, the larger the crowd of watchers grew.

Valoree Murray was there from the start. A Cleburne resident who is one of White's Facebook friends, said she took a day off from her job at Community Hospice of Texas, intending to stay to the end.

"My son, Cpl. Timothy Murray, is a Marine who just returned from his second tour in Afghanistan," she said. "He and many others have spent days and nights sacrificing for us over there. I can spend a day doing this to show my support."

White's wall also attracted a woman whose job in the nearby Burnett Plaza building made her feel connected. Janna Way said she sends fellow employees to Afghanistan every week as contractors in military intelligence operations.

"I came out to see Ron at lunch and will come back at different points during the day," she said. "I think it's special that he has memorized all these names."

White hasn't stopped at memorizing the names. Gradually, he's learning more about the people.

"I've learned about their lives by researching them and talking with their families and I'm a better person for it," he said. "I met the dad of Lance Cpl. Brandon Pearson. I talked with 1st Lt. Rosyln Schulte's parents in St. Louis. Then just last week 1st Lt. Timothy Steele's sister emailed me."

At a little after 1 p.m. Thursday, Fort Worth resident Marion Buckner was waiting in Burnett Park to see her grandson's name written on the wall. Pfc. Austin Staggs was one of six men killed Nov. 21, 2010, by a rogue Afghan police officer, Buckner said.

"He'll be No. 1,412," she said. "He's just to 1,000 now, so it will be a while."

Hearing Buckner behind him, White suggested she sit down for a while.

"As I get close to him, I'll call you," he said.

Moments later, White heard Stefanie Perez tell someone she'd come to look for her brother-in-law. He asked for the name.

"He was Sgt. Daniel Torres," Perez said. "He died Feb. 4, 2005."

White's eyes lost focus as he searched his memory for almost a minute.

"Are you sure it was in Afghanistan, not Iraq?" he asked.

Perez wasn't sure, but White wrote Sgt. Torres' name on the wall below others who died in early 2005. He promised he would research the name later, and make sure it's in the proper place next time should he find that the sergeant died in Afghanistan.

Part of White's motivation is his own experience in Afghanistan in 2007 during his enlistment in the Navy Reserves, he said. But being there didn't affect him as much as compiling what amounts to a mental monument.

"It's just made me grasp the scope of the sacrifice," he said. "When you see all those names written out in one place ... I don't think people realize how many there are until they see that."

Staring at the wall Thursday, Blair Pifer agreed.

"You just don't think about how many there are," she said. "It's crazy to see it right in front of you."

Terry Evans, (817) 390-7620

Twitter: @fwstevans

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