Often as a photojournalist, we are asked to participate in events that we may not necessarily be excited about. Recognizing that it is our responsibility to do so, we show up, complete our assignment then move along. On occasion, we have the opportunity to be a part of something much bigger than the particular experience, something that touches us deeply. A few months ago, a co-worker had recommended that Cycle Connections promote and participate in the escort ride for the Dignity ®Memorial Vietnam Wall Experience. Now, having ridden with the escort and after spending time with the wall, I can tell you that it was truly an event that I will never forget.
The original traveling wall was created by John Devitt, a former helicopter door gunner and Army veteran of Vietnam. After participating in the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C. in 1982, John decided that a traveling wall would provide a service to veterans, as well as family and friends of war casualties, who may never see the original in the nation's capital. Through the fund-raising efforts of John and others, the first traveling wall, half scale and made of Plexiglas, was displayed in 1984 at the Tyler Rose Festival in Texas. The availability of the traveling wall and its impact on those who visited, resulted in other versions being constructed and led to the adaptation that was recently on display in Kansas City.
The Dignity Memorial® Vietnam Wall Experience is a three-quarter-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. This exhibit is a faux-granite replica, 240 feet long and eight feet high and contains the names of 58,219 Americans who died or are missing in action from the Vietnam conflict. Included in the handout available to visitors are various details of the traveling wall and a touching statement regarding how the list is structured: the names are inscribed on the wall in the order they were taken from us. Each week the wall travels to a new city and is set up, then on display for a limited time, before moving on.
On Tuesday, June 21, the Dignity Memorial Traveling Wall, in its dedicated, colorful and patriotic semitrailer, arrived in Peculiar, Missouri where a large contingent of bikes and riders were staged. Promoters of the event had hoped for 200 cycle riders to escort the exhibit, but were elated when nearly 600 were present. Participants paid an entry fee of $25 per rider and $10 per passenger, with proceeds going to Operation Stand Down, serving homeless veterans in the Kansas City area. At 11:30 a.m. and with a full police escort, the procession began. The group departed the Flying J Truckstop, heading north on US 71 Highway where it went west then north on I-435. The long stream of bikes was met by many who paused in their travels to pay respect for what it represented. Along the way, we met flag wavers, grandparents and children. Some held signs expressing appreciation and one gentleman stopped his car, got out and stood at full attention as the procession continued. Participating in a ride this size and with this significance is a particularly moving and emotional experience.
As the escort arrived at the main entry for the Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens in Kansas City, Kansas, two large ladder trucks from the local fire department welcomed the group. Their ladders were fully extended and a very sizeable US flag was suspended from each tower of rungs. As we entered the grounds, pride swelled inside me. Soon the tree-lined side streets of the beautifully aged and well cared for cemetery were lined with chrome and steel that had now gone quiet. After having heard the roar of the escort for over 45 minutes, the silence was fitting. The sun shone brightly and the temperature and humidity were high for late June. Red Cross volunteers handed out bottles of water and packets of juice. Groups of riders gathered and quietly discussed the impact this particular escort had left on them. A support base of dimension wood had been constructed and laid out where the individual sections of the wall would soon be placed. A brief ceremony was held, prayers were given, and a purple heart, donated by a Vietnam veteran, was placed at the junction of the two vertical walls. The observance was an emotional experience for many present. Afterwards, the group slowly and quietly dispersed, many of whom traveled back west to the Community America ballpark for post ride activities.
On Friday, June 24 at 10 a.m., the Wall officially opened for public viewing. It remained open around the clock until Sunday, June 26 at 6 p.m. During that time, periodic presentations were made, military bands played at varied times and many volunteers assisted with the throngs of people who came to find the names of those they had known, or just to comprehend this monument and its significance in helping us understand and heal.
As I approached the wall, I stopped by a tent that provided shade over a large, decorative vault. Within the vault were various items that had been left behind by visitors since the exhibit had opened. The volume of items was touching; flowers, medals, service dress ribbons, police and fire fighter badges, small toys, photographs, ball caps, scarves and bandanas were scattered within. Each day, items left by caring individuals were removed from the wall, catalogued and then placed in the vault. The practice of leaving mementos behind had started with the dedication of the original wall and continues at each subsequent stop of the traveling wall. The vault containing the items left during this weekend was permanently buried on the grounds where the wall had stood, with a plaque identifying what lies below.
Although I knew of no particular names to look for, my visit to the wall was still a very personal experience. Using the cross-reference manuals at the entry points, I looked for surnames that were the same as mine, with the intention of finding out something about those lives that were lost. Locating the names on the wall can be a challenging endeavor. The manuals, about the size of a metro phone book, include the causalities and MIAs sorted by last names. Birth dates, dates perished, hometowns and states are also included. Finally, the numbered panel with its East or West designator and the associated line number is provided. Because there are so many lines per panel, small dots are engraved in the left or right margins of most tablets for every ten rows of names. Counting down from the top, it’s very easy to skip a dot, miscount the rows, not find the name and end up starting over. With some patience and assistance, I found those names I had chosen and took the time to make a rubbing of each. This process is one that requires a soft touch and effective use of the wide edge of a pencil. After a couple practice efforts, I ended up with legible copies with which I was satisfied.
After completing the rubbings of the names I had found, I was in no hurry to leave and felt that I owed it to myself to spend more time there. When an opportunity presented itself to help someone else with a rubbing, I assisted. When I spoke to volunteers, I expressed my gratitude for donating their time. In meeting veterans, I felt it important to offer a handshake and a thank you for their services as a veteran.
Leaving the wall was not easy. I walked away and took a seat in a shaded grassy area, soaking in the surroundings. My thoughts drifted back to 1972, to the debates in Mrs. Yost’s 6th grade class and to Walter Cronkite’s nightly news reports that always provided the numbers of soldiers killed and wounded. Those vivid newsreels and statistics only provided glimpses of the pain and torment of the soldiers and could not begin to represent the grief of the family and friends who had suffered as well. Even with the giddiness of youth, as children of that era, we were still very aware of the internal strife that was taking place in our country and the differing public opinions of that war. What also made it worse was the lack of appreciation shown towards those who were lucky enough to return home and in many cases, public disdain towards those who had served for their country.
The time period of young adulthood is one of the most enjoyable experiences of life. It’s that point when the thrill of living is vivid and present. Reflecting back on my life as a young adult, even after the war had ended, the carefree lifestyle and freedoms I had enjoyed now haunted me. When I compared my early 20’s with those who, at the same time in their lives, were lost in the war, feelings of sorrow and guilt occupied my thoughts. The responsibilities those young men and women had accepted and the sacrifices they had made were incomprehensible. To recognize that so many lives were tragically cut short, most of which were during this youthful period, was an overwhelming and saddening reflection.
Today, the wall imparts healing to veterans and their families, probably more than any other national memorial. The therapeutic gains it has provided are well documented. With its highly polished and reflective granite tablets, it is a unique and fitting tribute. Viewing the long lists of those who were lost gave new meaning to me of the sacrifices that had been made. In researching for this article, I came across several very touching stories whose links are included below.
My experience at the traveling wall has now convinced me of the importance of participating in events that honor our veterans. The Annual Memorial Day Rolling Thunder Rally, where tens of thousands of motorcyclists ride into our nation’s capital and visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall is one I intend to join in next year. If you cannot visit DC, then I strongly encourage you to consider volunteering for events such as this. Should the traveling wall be in your area, take time and visit it. If nothing else, seek out a veteran in your town, reach out and shake their hand or offer a hug and most certainly, tell them in your most sincere voice, “Thank You!”
Stories and Photos by Nic
Interesting links associated with the Traveling Wall: The Moving Wall by Gerry Stegmaier
Still the Noblest Calling by JD Wetterling
I Came To See My Son’s Name by Jim Schueckler
Moving Wall Becomes Vet’s Life Work
A Day in the Life of a Volunteer
“TET” Journal Feb 6, 1968 by Jeanette Wolfe