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March 1, 2013

Memory champion Ron White honors Afghan war dead by writing 2,200 names on wall

Ron White will never forget the American service members who have died in Afghanistan. "When I say that, I really, really, really mean it," he said.

Ron White will never forget the American service members who have died in Afghanistan.

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

White was so serious about the promise that he memorized their names in chronological order of their deaths.

A memory champion whose ability has landed him on TV shows and newscasts -- he set the world record for memorizing a shuffled deck of cards, at one minute, 27 seconds -- 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 not only White's homage to the men and women who died but also his way of raising 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's Afghanistan Memorial Wall debuted Thursday in downtown Fort Worth's Burnett Park. He plans to assemble the wall and write the names in several cities nationwide 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, which has a link to the Wounded Warrior Project website.

White started around 8 a.m. Thursday and finished late in the afternoon, when he and his crew broke down the wall and hauled 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, Murray 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 that she sit for a while.

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

Part of White's motivation is his own experience in Afghanistan in 2007 during his enlistment in the Navy Reserve, 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."

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