The traveling Vietnam Wall Memorial

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, June 19th, thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It, we visit a unique memorial honoring the men and women who gave their lives in the Vietnam War.

Three million people a year visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. But one man realized more than 30 years ago that many veterans and their families  couldn’t make the trip. So he decided to make a replica, and bring it to them.

REICHARD: WORLD Radio’s Paul Butler caught up with the traveling memorial and has a story to tell.

AUDIO: Moving wall ambience

It’s a cloudy evening in Ottawa, Illinois, about 90 miles southwest of Chicago. The UAW Pat Greenhouse Educational Center is the temporary home of The Moving Wall Memorial.  

CHEN: I can tell you stories that make you cry, make you cry…

Paul Chen is a Navy Veteran from New Lenox, Illinois. He fought in Vietnam. Chen and his wife voluntarily drive the backroads of the country, delivering the memorial to its next stop.

CHEN: It never gets old. Never, never, ever gets old.

Here in Ottawa, the driveway is lined with military colors. As you approach the installation, there is a sea of nearly 3-thousand small American flags—each representing an Illinois soldier killed in Vietnam. There are 34, 3-foot tall white crosses, each with a name and photograph of someone from this area who died in the conflict.

REYNOLDS: We’re standing in front of a one-half scale model of the Vietnam Wall that is in Washington D.C. This wall is 254 feet long…

Roger Reynolds is a Marine and Vietnam vet.

REYNOLDS: I was 20 years old when I went in. I was in Vietnam by the time I was 21. I got home shortly before I was 22…so that 18 months, 27 days, eight hours and 32 minutes…that’s the singular most important chapter in my life…

For the last three days, Reynolds has been here nearly around the clock—answering questions, sharing war stories, and comforting visitors.

REYNOLDS: The first time I came out to my buddy’s panel and put my hand on his name, I was completely overwhelmed. I sat down exactly where I was at, and I cried my eyes out for the next two and a half or three hours…

For more than three decades, the memorial has given veterans and their families a chance to heal. Mike Gladd, a Marine—who served in Vietnam—lives in Ottawa. He was one of the first to think of inviting the Moving Wall here.

GLAD: After watching people walk by all these panels, they are very thankful that they were able to come here, see that name or names, and bring some closure. So if we didn’t do anything else, God knows that we have helped people out here. It means a lot…means a lot…

The local V-F-W, American Legion, and dozens of other local groups raised the 25-thousand dollars necessary to bring the memorial to this town.

AUDIO: Gun salute

PETERSON: In the foxhole we’re all green. Here, we’re all family and that is exactly what has happened.

Daryle Peterson is a member of the LaSalle County Veterans Tribute Group. He has worked almost full time organizing this event over the last 8 months. Peterson, like most of the volunteers, is deeply affected by the memorial. He struggles for words to describe it…

PETERSON: It’s just, if you haven’t seen this, that, that, you need to because it’s, it’s, it’s overpowering…  

The first panel of the wall features just a handful of names, but as you progress down the path, each black, metallic sheet lists more than the one before—reflecting the growing casualties of war. Then as you turn 12 degrees and continue walking, the list of names starts to get smaller again until the last panel. The names are listed chronologically.

AUDIO: People talking to volunteer searcher

This week, visitors have come from all across the midwest—Tennessee, Missouri Ohio, but most are local.

JACOBSEN: You know, these are my contemporaries, these were kids I went to school with, and it just, it just makes you want to cry…  

Bill Jacobsen is a local pastor who served in the Air Force on the island of Guam during the war.

JACOBSEN: There’s that great verse that Jesus himself gives us that there is no greater love than this, than a man would give up his life for his friends. You know you see so many names and it just, it’s, it’s just so moving, it touches you. It really does.

Some who come are searching for the name of a friend or loved one…

AUDIO: Sound of rubbing

This young man is rubbing his grandfather’s name onto wax paper with a piece of charcoal. Others, sit on benches either facing the wall or toward the crosses—seemingly lost in a jungle far away. Then there are the families who come simply to honor the fallen, like the Castellis who live here in town.

CASTELLI: I kinda didn’t want to go at first, but I am kind of glad I came.

Fifteen-year-old Sam is visiting the memorial with his younger brother James and his parents.

CASTELLI: When you hear a number, you know, you don’t really think about it, but when you see the individual names that has more of an impact, than just, you know, hearing 50,000 or whatever. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you actually see the individual names, it’s a big difference.  

For most of the volunteers, it’s this aspect of the memorial that is crucial—helping the younger generation understand the war and the cost of freedom and sacrifice.

AUDIO: Names being read with bell tolls

During a candle light ceremony, Tyler Zellers, whose grandfather was killed in Vietnam, reads the 34 local names.

AUDIO: Names being read with bell tolls

The Vietnam war is certainly complicated. Opinions here vary dramatically, but on this ground, those debates take a back seat to the soldiers who paid the price…Paul Chen.

CHEN:There’s 1200 soldiers on there that their families have no idea where they’re at. Kids in their late forties see their dads on the wall, that they’d never met. It’s heart-wrenching.

AUDIO: Taking wall down

The Moving Wall is already on its way to its next stop. This year’s circuit ends at a New England Patriots game in November.

CHEN: Taking this wall around it, it means I’m bringing soldiers home…that never came home.

AUDIO: Truck pulling away

For WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler reporting from Ottawa, Illinois.




Oh, one more thing: As Paul Chen drives the Moving Wall Memorial from town to town, he’s seen and heard a lot of heart breaking stories. But he did tell me one with a happy ending…

CHEN: This was two years ago in Thomaston, Maine. We had the wall and this is 9:30, 10:00 o’clock at night. There’s only one couple at the wall. And he’s walking up and down the wall and he’s saying, “I know you’re here” and he’s looking for his buddy. I know you’re here. I know you’re here.

And now he sits at the apex, center of the wall, and the volunteer comes over, and she goes: “Sir,  can I help you find this person?” He told her the name and the spelling and the town he was from. She goes back to the computer and the book and can’t find this person at all.

And she took her phone out and dialed 411, and it rang a few times and the guy answered, she introduced herself as a volunteer with the Vietnam moving wall here in Thomaston, Maine, and she said, “are you such and such a person and you live in New Hampshire and were you in Vietnam in 67, 68?” He goes, “yes.” “Do you know this person?” He goes, “yes, he’s dead.”

And she goes, “can you hang on for a second?” And she walks over to the guy that’s got his head in his hands and he’s shaking his head and she leans over to him and she says, “talk to your buddy.” And his face turned white, and for 50 years they thought each other was dead and they only live within a 150 miles of each other.

That is probably one of the best things I ever witnessed, ever, for the 9 years I’ve been doing it, it was unbelievable.

(Photo/Paul Butler)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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