You’ve all heard the story about the importance of the “dash” between the dates of a person’s birth and their death, as therein lies what happened during those dates. In a similar way, within the long dash between Dale Buis and Richard Vande Geer lies a part of American history that continues to tear at the hearts and souls of our great nation, for these are the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of the first and last American servicemen killed in the Vietnam War, from 8 July, 1959 to 15 May, 1975.
Between these two names are those of 58,258 other American Service men and women killed during the 16 years of the Vietnam War. Included among them are the names of unaccounted for prisoners of war and those listed as missing in action, none more or less important than another, but to their loved ones and friends, all brothers and sisters, heroes, the finest America had to offer.
Founded in 1979 by Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed by artist Maya Lin and built in 1982 in Washington, D.C. A wall of black marble 500 feet long and forming a shallow “V,” the memorial bears the names of all Americans known to have been killed during the war or who whose deaths since the end of the war have been directly attributed to wounds received during the war. In 1984, the Moving Wall replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was created to tour America in order to make the memorial accessible to all. A few years later, my wife Nancy and I (both police officers) were honored to stand volunteer guard for the Moving Wall in Mentor, Ohio. I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial a few years later in Washington, D.C. The memories of both experiences have always remained very special.
In early 2007, Nancy called to see about bringing the Moving Wall here to Montrose, Colorado, not far from where we both retired in 1991. She was put on a waiting list for the week of Armed Forces Day, 14 May of this year (2009), and when they called her in October 2008 to verify, she was ready. Mr. Randy Havens, President of Timberline Bank and a Vietnam Veteran, had already volunteered to oversee the project and we all had tentatively recruited key people for the committee it would take to bring the Moving Wall to Montrose. Another key person who worked behind the scenes was Col. Robert K. Brown, who needs no introduction to readers of SOF.
The committee consisted of some 18 people, several of whom represented Montrose City and Montrose County, the police and fire departments, and others who were interested citizens. Eight were Vietnam Veterans, including two colonels and a chief warrant officer 4. It was an ideal mix to hurdle road blocks and raise the more than $20,000 it would take to produce the kind of event we envisioned for our community and Colorado’s Western Slope. The committee soon was running like a well-oiled machine, with each member becoming involved with one or more facets of the project.
The 5-day event was held at Montrose’s beautiful new Cerise Park, a huge, serene and secluded location, yet easily accessible near the edge of town. There we had an emotional opening ceremony, a main Armed Forces Day Ceremony, and a patriotic closing ceremony, each with prayers. On display were a fully restored WW II Jeep, a 1942 Halftrack, an Army UH-1H “Huey” helicopter, and part of my collection of U.S. military memorabilia.
There was great patriotic music and singing, a Native American Red Feather Ceremony, a great speech with a synopsis of the Vietnam War by General Bruce Fister, USAF (ret.), who flew over 240 missions there, and special honoring of the families and loved ones of all area residents killed in Vietnam, with each family presented an American flag. At the end, 25 white pigeons were released before a 9-plane fly-over followed by a 21-gun salute and taps, and if a picture is worth a thousand words, those seen here with their captions will help to tell the rest of the story.
All in all, our sign-in rosters tallied over 17,500 people coming to pay their respects to the 58,260 Americans on the Wall during the 5-day event, which was produced totally free of charge to all. Included in this number were 1,800 students from area middle and high schools brought in, with the schools being reimbursed for gasoline at $1.00 per student. Every class was assigned to a docent who was also a Vietnam Veteran in order to prepare them for the Wall and to answer their many questions. Of the more than 35 classes who visited the Wall, it was obvious that none of the kids were the same when he or she left as they were when they arrived.
Putting in 12-hour days seemed the hardest thing Nancy and I have ever done, with the constant interaction and all the emotion. Then again, that was nothing compared to Tom “Speedy” Garcia, a decorated Vietnam veteran and president of the Colorado Vietnam Veterans Motor Cycle Club, and his wife, who lived at the park in their large motor home 24 hours a day to run security for the Wall.
But the laughter and the tears, the handshakes and the hugs, and the thousands of “thank yous” made it all worth it and so much more. To be there in spirit with all of the heroes who gave up all of their tomorrows so that we could enjoy the rest of ours was more than any words can ever describe.
They are among the true “American Idols,” past, present, and future, who fought for our precious freedom. May God bless them and may God bless America. For information, contact the Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd., PO Box 715, Dept. SOF, White Pine, MI 49971, (906) 885-5599 (themovingwall.org).