Saturday, 25 May 2024

A moving tribute: Veterans group brings traveling Vietnam memorial wall to Lake County

LAKE COUNTY – A moving tribute to the fallen men and women of the Vietnam War will visit Lake County this summer, thanks for the effort of an intrepid group of veterans seeking to share their experiences and find healing for many of their comrades. {sidebar id=135}

Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 951, based here in Lake County, will bring “The Moving Wall” to Lake County for four days in June – June 11 through 15. It will be open to the public 24 hours a day during its visit, with computers available to help search for names on the wall.

The wall is a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Several of the replicas, created by Vietnam Combat Veterans Ltd., have toured the United States since 1984, according to the group's Web site, www.themovingwall.org. Two currently are making their way around the country from the spring through the fall.

John Devitt, one of the group's founder, was inspired to create the traveling memorial after attending the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the group reported. The Moving Wall is a tribute to the 2.7 million men and women who served in Vietnam.

The wall – which is approximately 252.83 feet long, 4 feet high on the ends and 6 feet high at the center – will be housed at the Lake County Fairgrounds, said Dean Gotham, VVA Chapter 951's president, who came up with the idea to bring the wall to Lake County.

The effort started in September 2006, when Gotham and another chapter member, George Dorner, began the application process.

It was just over two years later – in October 2008 – that Gotham got the call “telling us it was our turn.”

The wall's visit to Lake County will coincide with Flag Day and Armed Forces Day on June 14, Gotham said. As of the first of this year, the wall has visited 1,155 communities across the country. It was first displayed in Tyler, Texas, in October of 1984.

The moving wall has been to other areas of the North Coast before, including Ukiah in 1985, Yountville in 2006, and Napa and Santa Rosa in 2008, according to wall records.

The wall bears the names of 52,253 individuals, including eight women who served as nurses, and 1,300 men who were either prisoners of war or listed as missing in action, according to the wall's founders. The names are listed chronologically, according to date of death.

The names of eight Lake County men are included on the memorial (see sidebar, “Lake County's Vietnam casualties,” for their information).

Gotham and fellow chapter members who are working on the wall's visit to Lake County are all expecting an emotional experience.

“It's very, very personal,” said Gotham, explaining that everyone in the chapter knows someone whose name is inscribed on the memorial.

Gotham, who served in the Marines in Vietnam, said he first saw a small plastic replica of the original wall in the 1980s at Santa Rosa Junior College. He happened across it by accident while working on a nearby landscaping project.

It was an early morning with drizzling rain. Gotham saw the candles and approached it. “It knew what it was when I walked up to it,” he said, describing the goosebumps and tears that resulted.

Gotham knows two men whose names are on the wall – a high school buddy killed while serving as a Marine and another man who he knew who was killed in an artillery barrage.

Lakeport resident Dan Davi, who served four tours on active duty in the Navy as a second-class bosun mate, grew up in San Francisco.

When it comes to numbers of casualties, California took the hardest hit of all the states in the union, said Davi.

Davi, who graduated from high school in 1966, stimates between 10 and 15 percent of his high school class is listed on the wall.

“It will be a very humble occasion for me to go and get etchings of their names and settle my heart, so to speak,” he said. “It's going to be quite emotional for all of us.”

Retired Navy Capt. Herman “Woody” Hughes of Lakeport said he's seen the original Washington, DC memorial twice as well as the traveling wall in Branson, Mo.

Hughes, who retired after 26 years in the military, including just under a year in Vietnam, doesn't think of himself as emotionally demonstrative, but he said the initial impact of seeing the wall can be pretty strong.

When he first saw the memorial in Washington, DC, “It was almost as if I couldn't breathe,” he said.

That wall is located in a depression. As he and he wife were going down the walkway, he said he turned to her and said, “I don't know if I can do this or not.”

He did go on, he said, and found the name of a friend who had died in the war.

Gotham said all of the veterans are very excited to bring the memorial to Lake County, to share it with their community. Likewise, reactions so far from community members have been very positive, he said.

At the same time, some veterans are also a little scared, Gotham added, “because we know we're going to be facing some demons, quite frankly.”

He called bringing the wall to Lake County “an extreme example of an act of love.”

Said Davi, “We all get kind of teary-eyed just talking about it.”

Gotham said having the wall here will give the county “the opportunity to reveal itself.”

“It will be a major event,” added Hughes.

Lots of work ahead

VVA has kicked into high gear, with biweekly meetings to take on the enormous organizational challenges ahead.

Davi has assumed project manager duties, and is tracking everything from the opening ceremony preparations to hospitality, security, lighting, landscaping and fundraising.

“It's moving along really well,” Davi said.

When the wall arrives on June 9, the VVA and community volunteers will carry out the five-hour setup process. The wall should be set up and ready by the following day, Gotham said.

The structure itself is aluminum, with the names silk screened onto it, he said. The result is that it looks dramatically like the black granite of the original.

Fundraising duties are being handled primarily by Gotham, who has begun making the rounds of local community groups to seek funding assistance to bring the wall here. Just to bring it cost $5,000.

But the group, which first began meeting in December of 2004 and was chartered the following month, in January of 2005, is tenacious when it comes to doing community projects.

“We're still the new kids on the block,” said Gotham.

However, they've raised thousands to help veterans and other area residents in need, and have spent several years conducting the “Seniors Not Forgotten” project to bring seniors in local care facilities some cheer during the Christmas holidays.

They're seeking not just monetary donations but volunteer help from anyone who is interested.

Expecting an outpouring of emotion

For many of the young men and women who returned home after serving in the military in Vietnam, their homecoming was as emotionally harrowing as their time on the battlefield.

The United States was a country divided over its participation in the war in Southeast Asia, and when soldiers, Marines and sailors came home, what many of them encountered has left many bruised, devastated and even embittered lives.

Many of those vets will tell you how they were treated maliciously – “to say nothing of disrespectfully,” said Hughes.

He said when he came home he found a curious reaction from people about what was happening in Vietnam – lack of interest.

“For something that we had laid our lives down for, we came back to find that America had no interest in it. That was difficult,” he said.

His experience was less harrowing than some vets, who came home to find active protests targeting them. It was something they weren't prepared to face, and it's a factor that he believes influences the situations of many Vietnam veterans today.

He recounts speaking with Vietnam vets who still are in various states of trauma. One man hasn't left his home in 15 years. Another came to a Vietnam Veterans of America chapter meeting but never returned. Hughes said the man looked closed in on himself.

Such men came home not to ticker tape parades – which had greeted their fathers' returns from World War II – but protests, abuse and ignorance, he explained.

While movies have been made about “the greatest generation,” which has become the subject of deep reverence, Vietnam is consistently held up as a bad example – “the war that should never have been,” Hughes said. Movies about that war, he said, basically are antiwar films.

It's for that reason that VVA's motto is “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another,” said Hughes.

Vietnam veterans also have worked hard to make sure today's young veterans and members of the military are treated with more compassion and respect, Hughes said.

Turning millions of young men and women into villains caused great emotional stress, he said. Several of his veteran friends continue to regularly attend counseling today which isn't just because of the war.

“We're not asking for anything, nothing special, just don't treat us like baby killers,” said Hughes.

Added Gotham, “For everyone who served in Vietnam, there was someone here at home who disagreed.”

Davi estimates that many Vietnam veterans – as high as 15 percent – haven't dealt with the emotional fallout from their service in the war.

Even when you try to get on with your life, 40 years later you realize how it affects you, he said.

Davi said many Vietnam vets have gone through numerous marriages, suffered drug and alcohol abuse, then they channeled that energy into being workaholics. Eventually, though, the weight of their experiences hits them.

Hughes agrees with that assessment. “There are a number of Vietnam veterans who are hiding from facing the issue of their experience over there.”

Gotham, Davi and Hughes all believe many vets will visit the wall during “off” hours – especially at night and times when others aren't likely to be there. That's one of the reasons for making it available to the public at all hours of the day and night during its stay, said Gotham.

Hughes, who is chaplain for VVA and the United Veterans Council, will be on hand to help. He expects some people will have a hard time when they first see it, not just veterans but those who knew someone on the wall.

Some of the emotion that may result, said Hughes, won't necessarily be sadness and grief. Some of it may also be anger from veterans recalling their treatment on coming home.

Hughes, whose time in Vietnam included three months on riverboats running river security just below the demilitarized zone in South Vietnam, said he hopes he'll be able to help some of those who come to see the wall by offering support and a willingness to listen, to help people work through the emotions that will arise.

He's been offering help since he put his arm around a young sailor whose friend was badly hurt when a Howitzer shell landed on their bunker in Vietnam's Quang Tri province.

“He was so devastated by seeing what happened to his buddy, and afraid, and nothing's wrong with that,” said Hughes, recalling the event decades later.

Is the wall's visit an opportunity for closure?

“Closure? What the hell is that?” Gotham asked. “This is a part of our lives forever.”

A better word, and a more appropriate result, he suggests, would be “forgiveness.”

Many survivors feel guilty for making it home when their friends didn't, he said.

“The only resolution out of that is forgiveness, and that's pretty hard for guys to do,” said Gotham.

As viewpoints about Vietnam have changed, many people have started to recognize Vietnam veterans as heroes in their own right. But that's not necessarily what men like Gotham seek.

“The heroes that we look at are the guys on the wall,” he added. “They're our heroes.”

If you would like to help with donations to the wall or volunteer help or other services, call Gotham at 350-1159.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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