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Hope and Healing: The Wall That Heals honors Vietnam vets in Huntsville

HUNTSVILLE — Times have changed for Vietnam veterans.

While these warfighters were once met with extreme contempt and received a welcome home that was anything but warm, today they can achieve peace and healing. The Wall That Heals seeks to honor these men and women and give them something that many have waited decades to find: closure.

TWTH is a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., about three-quarters the size of the original. The original wall was established by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in April 1979 and officially broke ground in March 1982. It contains more than 58,000 names of the men and women who either gave their lives fighting or succumbed to the effects of the war, with a large percentage still missing to this day. Out of all the names, more than 150 are Medal of Honor recipients.

From time to time, even more names are added.

The wall is the main source of recognition and honor from the American people to Vietnam veterans. According to VVMF’s website, they hoped to help the United States reach a greater level of understanding by “separating the issue of the service of the individual men and women from the issue of U.S. policy in Vietnam.”

This hits home for Vietnam veteran John Mays, a Columbus, Ohio, native who has resided in Huntsville since 1977.

“The Vietnam War was something different,” Mays recalled. “When we came back, people didn’t like us, and all we were doing was what our government asked us to do. We’d come back, and they’d spit on us, throw stuff at us.”

When Mays came home through Ft. Lewis, Washington, he was told to change into his civilian clothes so people would not recognize him as a member of the military.

“For many, many years, we’ve all sequestered that, and we wouldn’t tell anybody that we was in that war … this wall here started to be able to get us to open up, and it started a healing process where now, we proudly wear (our recognition),” Mays said, getting emotional.

At 18 years old, Mays went over to Vietnam in 1970. He turned 19 later that year. He went over with a communication military occupational specialty and worked in a bunker. About a month in country, he had volunteered and was assigned to the role of door gunner on a helicopter for the rest of his time there.

“When you’re 18, you’re young and dumb and will volunteer for stupid things,” said Vietnam veteran Mike Stewart, a native of Mobile, Alabama, who now lives in Madison. Stewart also entered the war at about 18-19 years of age and admitted to volunteering for dangerous positions as well.

“Door gunners over there—most of the time they didn’t last real long, but I was very fortunate in the flights I was on and everything else,” Mays said. “God brought me home.”

Mays said there is no other war by which all names of the fallen are on a monument, and the youngest person whose name is etched on the wall was 15 years old.

On the morning of Oct. 30, TWTH arrived at Redstone Harley-Davidson on Greenbrier Road. From there, the wall received an escort to John Hunt Park for assembly, courtesy of several local groups like the Huntsville Police Department and American Legion’s Patriot Guard Riders. Intuitive Research and Technology Corporation, a company in which veterans make up about 45 percent of its employees, led efforts bright and early the next morning to assemble the wall.

“This was an all-volunteer effort, and without them, we wouldn’t have this beauty sitting out in (John Hunt) park,” said Rey Almodóvar, CEO of Intuitive Research and Technology Corporation. “… This is one of the things that I just couldn’t believe we were given that honor and privilege to be the winning sponsor.”

Though stormy weather blew through the area and caused a delay in TWTH’s opening to the public, people young and old, military and non-military turned out in droves to witness the wall and pay their respects to its thousands of honorees.

The day ended with a special ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Museum to honor living veterans with speakers including John Perry, chairman of TWTH; Almodóvar; John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America; Tommy Battle, mayor of Huntsville; and Maj. Gen. Allan Elliott, Army Materiel Command.

Rowan praised the original wall’s designer, Maya Lin—who at the time was a student at Yale University and beat out more than 1,400 other entires for the memorial—for the overall force of her sophisticated design.

“The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a really distinct memorial,” Rowan said. “… The simplicity of it, and yet the drama of it, is incredible.”

The wall consists of an east and west side. The first of the deaths in Vietnam occurred in 1959, which begins in the right innermost panel and runs chronologically from left to right on the east side. The names then run chronologically from that point to the far left of the west side and back to the center as if in a large, clockwise loop up to the last death in 1975.

Rowan also touched on the spirit of America and the contributions of all types of men and women in the Vietnam War, even those of non-Americans. He said one of his friends on the wall was born just outside of Paris, France, and “thousands” of Canadians joined the American ranks as well.

“The key to the whole memorial is the fact that it is America,” he said. “When you think about the names on that wall … it’s every race, every color, every creed, every ethnicity.”

The Huntsville Community Chorus sang renditions of patriotic songs at the ceremony like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America” and the U.S. Armed Forces medley.

“It’s not lost on any of us serving in the military today that you’re part of a great legacy,” Elliott told the Vietnam veterans in attendance. “You, our Vietnam veterans, are a key piece of that legacy. We’re proud to represent you and your dedication and commitment to freedom. Your service, your experiences bond you forever and bond us to you. Your connection to the names on that wall may not be understood by all, but we see it. These are the names of your brothers and your sisters—those that gave the last full measure for love of country and friends.”

This year is extra special to see the wall on tour, as 2018 marks 50 years since the American effort peaked in the Vietnam War after the Tet Offensive. Because of this, TWTH hosted a “50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War Lecture Series” Nov. 3. These special guest speakers included Brig. Gen. Robert Stewart, a Vietnam helicopter pilot and astronaut; Joe Galloway, famed Vietnam journalist and author of book-turned-movie “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young;” and Brig. Gen. Joe Stringham of the Vietnam Special Operations Group.

The day before, students from several schools in the area took field trips to TWTH as part of their studies on the Vietnam War. Liberty Middle School teacher Michelle Breeden brought her sixth-grade students as part of a special project in which they researched a fallen soldier and looked for his or her name on the wall. They also had the privilege of meeting a Medal of Honor recipient. In addition, Breeden’s students painted rocks to either give to veterans, place on veterans’ graves or leave in locations where a veteran might find it. To see some of their decorated rocks, search the hashtag “#twth-hsv” on social media.

That same day, members of the West Point Class of 1964 in the greater Huntsville area were joined by classmates in Tennessee and Georgia in visiting the wall to leave laminated signs with photos, names and information on all of their fallen classmates who are honored on the wall for visitors to see. Mike Moran, a member of the class of 1964, was responsible for the placards. Each sign was also accompanied by a red rose and a miniature American flag, which were arranged by Barbara Winton, whose husband, Hal, is a member of the class in the Madison area.

In the grass facing the wall, an empty chair sat at a table set for one. Stewart explained that this is common to see at veteran events and ceremonies. The setup is highly symbolic and is often referred to as the POW/MIA “Missing Man” table.

With TWTH also came a “Mobile Education Center” that served as a miniature museum. Visitors could discover more about the Vietnam War through a map of conflicts, a detailed timeline, various relics and digital displays.

As a special touch, the Mobile Education Center displays a rotation of the names and faces of “Hometown Heroes.” Among these heroes was a young man named Prentice “Wayne” Hicks.

Cheryl Hedges Wagar, a Decatur resident and a former classmate of Hicks in Butler High School’s class of 1968, visited TWTH Nov. 2 to find his name.

“My husband had several classmates, and then I had one (in the war),” Wagar said. “I have not been to (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) in Washington, so this is really cool.”

The Hometown Heroes display indicated that Hicks died March 25, 1969, while serving. Hicks’ body remains missing to this day.

“The names with the crosses in the front have not been found,” Wagar explained. “When they find them, they come back and make (the crosses) into a diamond, so that was cool.” A guide with TWTH explained to Wagar that 20 bodies were found just this past year.

If you are the friend or family member of someone whose name is inscribed on the wall, you may contribute his or her picture to The Wall of Faces. TWTH is on a mission to find a photo for every single name, as they aim to “ensure that those who sacrificed all in Vietnam are never forgotten.” Visit vvmf.org/faces to learn more.

Some veterans, like Mays, count themselves blessed to be living today. Others are still wracked with guilt that they have the privilege of living while their fellow servicemen and women are names on the wall, explained Chaplain James Henderson, who is also a veteran himself.

“We all, down inside, still feel a little guilty that our names are not on that wall,” Henderson admitted. “Why do theirs have to be there and ours not? But God is gracious. He’s the healer.”

Henderson and other chaplains were present at TWTH to offer friendly support and encouragement to any visitors who were having a hard time emotionally.

A special field ceremony concluded TWTH’s visit to Huntsville Nov. 4. That afternoon, volunteer staff from Intuitive Research and Technology Corporation dismantled the wall. TWTH will stop in Kountze, Texas, this week before ending its 2018 run in Franklinton, Louisiana—the last of 38 American cities on the tour.

“The wall means something different to each of us,” Almodóvar said. “For me, it stands as a symbol of America’s honor and recognition of the men and women who serve and sacrifice their lives. Without them and their selfless sacrifice, we would not be fortunate enough to enjoy the freedom we take advantage of every day.”

To learn more, get involved or donate to the cause, visit vvmf.org/twth.

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Digital version of The Madison Record – Feb. 28, 2024

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