WELLINGTON — There are 58,320 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
The replica memorial, now on display in Wellington, allows visitors to see each and every one of those names without the need to travel to the nation’s capital.
“Freedom is not free, it comes at a price,” said Wellington Memorial Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Commander Michael Rush during the opening ceremony Thursday. “And the price of that freedom is written on that wall.”
Veterans, veterans’ families and Lorain County residents attended the ceremony for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Moving Wall. The wall opened to the public at 10 a.m. Thursday and will remain in place at Union School Park, 201 S. Main St., until 4 p.m. Monday.
Rush said the Moving Wall was brought to the location for love and for healing. He said there are three reasons for bringing the Moving Wall to town: honoring the veterans who lost their lives; honoring the veterans who are still alive; and reminding those alive today of those soldiers’ sacrifices.
Wellington Mayor Hans Schneider, who served in the U.S. Air Force, spoke at the ceremony, urging visitors to remember the sacrifices the soldiers made.
“The names we reflect on today — the names on that wall — represent the best the United States has to offer,” Schneider said. “They represent the American soldier who travels to lands they’d likely never see if they didn’t wear the uniform. To fight for people they didn’t know and causes they might not fully understand or even agree with, but they did it. They did it because they wore the colors of our country, they did it because they believe in freedom and democracy. They did it not just for people in far away lands, they did it for us so that we could be here today to enjoy our lives and our freedom: two things they never got a chance to experience.”
Others who spoke at the ceremony carried a similar message of giving honor, gratitude and recognition to a generation of veterans who came back to a general public showing at best indifference and at worst hatred.
Vietnam veterans John Poweska and John Cassese, members of the Amherst VFW post, said they remember the kind of treatment they received coming back. Poweska, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1971 to 1974, said was called many names he didn’t want to repeat when he arrived at an airport in Chicago. Poweska said he never thought about whether public perception would change or not; he only tried ignoring the negativity.
“I was actually in shock,” he said. “I didn’t say anything, I didn’t answer to anything. If somebody said something to me, I just let it go.”
Today, Poweska said he’s glad to see the respect for his service. But even as recently as this year, he still gets negative comments, however rare.
Other people who attended the ceremony included friends and family of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Those loved ones came not just to honor their loved one’s memory but to pay tribute to the soldiers memorialized on the wall. Bonnie Chalmers, 63, of Wellington, came to rub the name of her third cousin, Douglas Dickey, onto a piece of paper. Dickey died in March 1967 at the age of 20 after diving onto a live grenade to protect those around him. Dickey’s actions earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. She was no older than about 11 when she heard about his death and described him as fun and outgoing.
Sisters Laura Butti and Leslie Simonson came to honor their brother Davis A. Jones, one of the six Wellington residents who died while serving in the Vietnam War. The two Wellington natives were 8 and 11, respectively, when Jones lost his life. For years, they had no idea what happened to him until a man who served with Jones reached out to offer closure to the family. He told the women and their family about how Jones and 27 other men were surrounded by hundreds of Vietcong soldiers in 1967 outside the city of Da Nang. He was among the eight casualties from that conflict. The women said getting that closure was priceless.
“You always think (that) he died alone,” Butti said. “But they (all) were brothers; it was wonderful to know the support they had together.”
The Moving Wall is a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., made of two sections, each measuring 126.5 feet long and 7 feet tall. It has toured the country for more than 30 years, according to www.themoving wall.org. The idea to bring the Moving Wall to Wellington came from Fran Brooks, president of the Wellington Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6941 Auxiliary. The organization of the event was spearheaded by Brant Smith, quartermaster of the Wellington VFW.
The five-day event is receiving assistance from the Wellington American Legion Post 8, the Ohio Veterans Fraternal Charitable Coalition, Huntington AMVETS Post 162, Amherst American Legion Post 118 and North Olmsted VFW Post 7647.
Aside from the requests for gratitude and respect, one of the last speakers, Wellington American Legion Post 8 Commander Rich Kwiatkowski, urged people to say the one thing to the soldiers that they never received when they first returned: “Welcome home.”
Vietnam veterans are invited to visit the wall at 5 p.m. Saturday to receive a pin and certificate for their service. A closing ceremony for the wall’s visit will be at 1 p.m. Monday, and the dismantling of the Moving Wall will start at 4 p.m. At 6 p.m. each day through Sunday, as well as during the closing ceremony Monday, there will be a live reading of the names of the 98 Lorain County Vietnam veterans who lost their lives in the war.
For more information about the wall, visit www.themovingwall.org. For more information about the event, call the Wellington VFW at (440) 647-3035.