A visit to The Wall That Heals

VIEW PHOTOS from The Wall That Heals

Editor’s note: The Wall That Heals — a one-half-scale traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. — made a four-day stop at the Field of Honor Veterans Memorial, 100 Heart Blvd., Loves Park, Illinois, Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 11-14. The wall was hosted by the Rockford Charter Chapter of VietNow and presented by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF). Among the initiatives of the VVMF is “Faces Never Forgotten,” a program to find a photo to go with each of the 58,300 names on the wall. Nearly 3,000 Illinois veterans are listed on the wall, and of those, nearly 1,300 photos are still missing. Learn more at www.vvmf.org. Following is a recap of the wall’s visit to Loves Park.

By P.J. Francis

Riverside Boulevard was extremely busy with Friday afternoon traffic Sept. 12. For some reason, heavy rain causes the driving standard to sink to an even lower-than-normal level. Those fortunate enough to be able to take off early were focused on heading to their “place up north,” meeting up with that someone special for pre-dinner cocktails, or simply caught up in that Friday afternoon frenzy that invariably led to an anticlimax as evening approached. Those wage slaves with the ever-disappearing Monday to Friday day jobs who had somehow managed to escape early were rushing home because that is what they did after work. Speed limits were broken, chances were taken, and aggression was used. Civility was conspicuous by its absence.

As I turned onto Heart Boulevard in Loves Park, Illinois, the driver of a large luxury automobile expressed his displeasure by pressing the horn long and loud. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and assumed he was a surgeon bound for the hospital to save a life … or a factory owner rushing to his business with a part for a broken production line … or a drug dealer heading for a crucial rendezvous with a supplier. I could not resist the temptation of stealing a glance at the driver in my rear-view mirror.

I was pleased to escape the madness of Riverside Boulevard. What a contrast the flag-bordered Heart Boulevard was. It would do the rushing people good to slow down and visit The Wall That Heals — but they had other issues to deal with.

Unveiled on Veterans Day 1996 by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, The Wall That Heals is a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., that travels to communities across the United States, touching Americans with its message of honor and healing. It is visited by thousands of people, many of whom would not otherwise have the opportunity to experience the power of The Wall in Washington, D.C. The exhibit also features a museum and information center, providing a comprehensive educational component to enrich and complete the visitor experience.

It had been several years since the traveling memorial visited Sunset Memorial Gardens in Machesney Park, Illinois. For me, it was an amazing experience to see equipment and meet people who had actually been in Vietnam. Being a fledgling newspaper “stringer,” it was the first time I had met people who were OK with talking about the Vietnam War. I learned much.

I recall the then Village President of Machesney Park Linda Vaughn telling how recruiters had come to her high school. Several of her fellow students had signed up. Some of them were dead before the class graduated, she said. I could not even imagine that happening in my high school class in my native Ireland. School was about studying, sports and girls. War was the last thing on our minds.

Jam Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, noted: “If all of the names could be in one place, these names would have great power. A power to heal. It would have power for individual veterans, but collectively, they would have even greater power to show the enormity of the sacrifices that were made.”

Do people care what the Vietnam veterans experienced? Do people know what they went through? Do people who were not there think about it?

The Wall is a lasting tribute to more than 58,000 service members who gave their lives in the Vietnam War and a tribute to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who served.

In May 1981, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund completed its design competition. From the 1,421 entries, the eight judges unanimously chose the design of Maya Ying Lin, a 21-year-old Yale architecture student. (The choice was controversial at the time. It was the design, rather than the designer’s ethnicity, that won.) Construction at the site was finished in late October 1982, and the memorial was dedicated Nov. 13, 1982.

The Three Servicemen statue was sculptured by Frederick E. Hart and added to the memorial in 1984. Depicting three service members in their Vietnam War-era uniforms, the sculpture evoked the experience and service of Vietnam veterans. The bronze sculpture is placed in a grove of trees near the west entrance to The Wall.

A 60-foot bronze flagpole was dedicated with the Three Servicemen statue in 1984. Around the base are the emblems of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. An inscription states: “This flag represents the service rendered to our country by the veterans of the Vietnam War. The flag affirms the principals of freedom for which they fought and their pride in having served under difficult circumstances.”

Among the many photos from the Vietnam War on display at the information center are those showing soldiers wading through waist-deep swamps. I felt for those young guys as they overcame fears we can only imagine. Today, we are accosted with images of people having ice water poured over them. Their expressions are frequently those of horror. Try wading through snake-infested mud not knowing if you were in the enemy’s gun sights.

Former Army Nurse Diane Carlson Evans sought to acknowledge the valiant service of women and their many different roles in Vietnam. Her home of the country’s recognition of these brave women resulted in a statue honoring their services. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial, sculpted by Glenna Goodacre, was added near The Wall in 1993.

From a plaque at the information center: The United States involvement in Vietnam began when we decided to assist Vietnamese guerrillas fighting the Japanese during World War II. After the war, the United States began funding the French effort to preserve its colonial administration in Vietnam. After the French withdrawal following the military in Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States supported an independent South Vietnam. This led to the conflict commonly known as the Vietnam War.

Fighting took place in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Communist North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, sided against the government of South Vietnam, supported by the United States and other member nations of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). The United States withdrew all combat troops by 1973. The last U.S. official personnel left Vietnam in 1975 after the fall of Saigon.

Vietnam War chronology

July 21, 1954 — Geneva Peace Accord partitions Vietnam into North and South along the 17th Parallel.

January 1955 — U.S. begins to funnel aid directly to Saigon government and agrees to train South Vietnamese Army.

Oct. 26, 1955 — Republic of Vietnam is established with Ngo Dinh Diem serving as first president.

July 1956 — Realizing Ho Chi Minh’s popularity, President Diem cancels national elections required by the Geneva Peace Accords, creating unrest and discord in South Vietnam.

May 9, 1957 — South Vietnamese President Diem addresses joint sessions of U.S. Congress.

October 1957 — Communists assemble forces in South Vietnam.

May 1958 — United States sends military advisers requested by South Vietnam.

1959 — North Vietnamese begin enlarging the Communist infiltration route known as the Ho Chi Mihn Trail.

May 1959 — United States begins building up forces stationed in South Vietnam.

July 8, 1959 — First two Americans are killed in Vietnam by hostile fire.

1960 — President Diem still refuses to introduce government reform; National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) emerges in South Vietnam.

May 11, 1961 — Green Beret “White Star” mobile training teams become operational in Vietnam.

Nov. 30, 1961 — Defoliant Agent Orange is approved by President Kennedy for use in Vietnam.

May 9, 1962 — U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara visits South Vietnam.

June 11, 1963 — Buddhist monk Quang Doc publicly burns himself to protest Diem’s government.

Nov. 1-2, 1963 — President Diem is overthrown and later assassinated.

Aug. 6, 1964 — Lt. Everett Alvarez Jr. becomes the first American prisoner of war (POW) in Vietnam after being shot down in a raid on North Vietnamese bases.

Aug. 7, 1964 — Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Johnson the authority to take action against the North Vietnamese.

Dec. 14, 1964 — United States begins bombing North Vietnam.

1965 — Protests by Americans against Vietnam War begin in United States.

March 2, 1965 — Vietnam War escalates with start of Operation Rolling Thunder bombing raids on North Vietnam.

March 8, 1965 — First American combat force of 3,500 U.S. Marines arrives in Vietnam.

Nov. 20, 1965 — North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh rejects United States peace talks.

Nov. 27, 1965 — More than 250,000 Americans demonstrate in Washington, D.C., against the Vietnam War.

December 1965 — More than 180,000 troops are serving in-country.

Jan. 12, 1966 — President Johnson says United States should stay in South Vietnam until Communist aggression ends.

March 8, 1966 — Australia sends 4,500 troops to fight in Vietnam.

Aug. 6, 1966 — President Johnson increases the number of troops stationed in Vietnam to 292,000.

Oct. 26, 1966 — President Johnson visits U.S. troops in Vietnam.

1967 — The number of U.S. in-country troops approaches 500,000.

Jan. 8, 1967 — Operation Cedar Falls is launched to rid Iron Triangle area around Saigon of enemy bunkers and tunnels.

April 15, 1967 — 100,000 Vietnam War protesters gather in New York City.

Nov. 30, 1967 — U.S. casualties reach 15,000.

Jan. 30, 1968 — Viet Cong launch Tet Offensive on South Vietnam; 268,800 Communist troops attack 105 Vietnamese cities and towns, leaving almost 81,000 dead and 350,000 homeless.

March 16, 1968 — Some members of a U.S. Army platoon kill villagers at My Lai.

Oct. 31, 1968 — U.S. bombing of North Vietnam is halted.

1969 — U.S. casualties total 40,000.

Jan. 16, 1969 — Peace talks begin between the Saigon government and Viet Cong.

March 18, 1969 — United States begins secret B-52 strikes in Cambodia.

April 30, 1969 — U.S. troops’ strength peaks at 543,482 in-country.

June 8, 1969 — President Nixon announces “Vietnamization,” his plan to withdraw 25,000 U.S. troops and replace them with South Vietnamese forces.

July 30, 1969 — President Nixon travels to Vietnam.

Sept. 3, 1969 — North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh dies at age 79.

Oct. 15, 1969 — Millions across the U.S. participate in the Moratorium, the largest one-day demonstration against the war.

May 4, 1970 — Four college students at Kent State in Ohio are killed by National Guardsmen during an antiwar demonstration on campus.

June 24, 1970 — U.S. Senate votes overwhelmingly to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Feb. 8, 1971 — South Vietnamese forces begin attacks along the Ho Chi Mihn Trail in Laos.

March 29, 1971 — Lt. William Calley is convicted by an Army court-martial for his part in the My Lai massacre.

March 30, 1972 — North Vietnam launches the Easter Offensive on South Vietnam.

Dec. 29, 1972 — President Nixon halts bombing in Vietnam.

Jan. 27, 1973 — Vietnam Peace Treaty signed in Paris; Secretary of Defense Mervin Laird announces the end of the U.S draft.

March 29, 1973 — Last U.S. troops leave Vietnam.

June 22, 1974 — Vietnamese reconciliation talks break down; 18,000 South Vietnamese and 66,000 North Vietnamese have been killed since the peace treaty was signed.

April 23, 1975 — President Gerald Ford speaks in New Orleans, calling the Vietnam War “finished.”

April 30, 1975 — Saigon falls to North Vietnamese forces.

December 1975 — More than 1.5 million Vietnamese have left the country for a “safe haven.”

July 2, 1976 — North and South Vietnam are officially reunited.

It continued to rain heavily during my visit to The Wall That Heals. A bunch of school buses were departing as I parked. Despite the conditions, a steady stream of visitors came and went. It was a reminder that rain frequently made conditions for the soldiers in Vietnam even more miserable than normal.

When I rejoined the traffic on Riverside, there was no evidence that civility had somehow been discovered. I did my best to avoid impeding the progress of those doctors, factory owners, drug dealers and whoever else was out there. I wish I could have been able to get them to visit the wall and put their priorities in perspective.

Posted Sept. 17, 2014

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