The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall provides family members the opportunity to celebrate the lives of loved ones who died during the Vietnam War. PHOTO BY MAUREEN WELSH / COURTESY OF VIETNAM AND ALL VETERANS OF BREVARD
Memorials serve as touchstones in our culture. As powerful symbols that can evoke emotions and prompt remembrances, they serve as portals to other places and times. For veterans of the conflict and their families, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a granite wall engraved with the names of the 58,311 Americans who died as a result of the war, has proven a particularly important touchstone since it first opened in 1982. The wall has provided comfort to those who have needed help reconciling with the past, or who have simply wished to remember a buddy or loved one. But what about those vets and families who simply cannot make the pilgrimage to our nation’s capital to visit the memorial?
To help those who cannot travel to the wall, the wall can sometimes be brought to them. Several portable replicas of the monument have been built by various organizations, which take them to be displayed around the country. One of those replicas, The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall from the Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard (VVB), is coming to Naples in time for Veterans Day. The wall will be hosted at NaplesChurch from Nov. 10-15.
The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall provides veterans a way to symbolically visit comrades fallen in battle. PHOTO BY MAUREEN WELSH / COURTESY OF VIETNAM AND ALL VETERANS OF BREVARD
“As the church body as a whole, not just NaplesChurch per se, it is very important that we honor our veterans,” said Pastor Paul Foslien of Naples Church. “The church needs to let the world see that we honor our veterans and the freedoms that come with that. NaplesChurch is known as a place where love works, and the scripture John 15:13 says, ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’”
About eight months ago, Pastor Foslien said that it was “laid on his heart” that he should do something special for veterans. He had heard of a portable replica wall and looked into The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, not even realizing there was more than one replica traveling the country. He inquired about hosting this wall but learned it was booked up for several years. He let the idea go but, two days later, he received a call back stating that another booking had canceled and was asked if the church would like to host the wall over veterans week. The church obtained local sponsors, with the sponsorship dollars going to support the event as well as the Wounded Warrior Project. The church is also organizing volunteers to staff the memorial’s display.
The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall will be open 24 hours a day while on display at Naples Church. COURTESY OF VIETNAM AND ALL VETERANS OF BREVARD
“It was an absolute God thing that it happened and that we were able to get it, not only within eight months, but that we were able to get it over Veterans’ week,” Pastor Foslien said.
Doc Russo, VVB’s wall manager, said the organization receives 300 requests yearly to bring the wall, but he only books 18 sites. Over half withdraw their requests upon learning that VVB charges a fee since the nonprofit does incur expenses, even with an all-volunteer staff, when hauling a 300-foot long, six-foot high wall around the country in a 32-foot trailer. Mr. Russo then filters the remaining requests by determining if they have solemn, respectful reasons for displaying the wall.
“I’m not going to take it to a NASCAR race or a county fair,” Mr. Russo said. “It’s not a sideshow. I am a big fan of taking it to smaller communities versus big cities because the amount of people from smaller communities who will make it to Washington are less. You go to the mountains of West Virginia and see that one mom whose son is on the wall, and she’ll never make it to Washington
— that’s why we do what we do by traveling.”
As a three-fifths-sized replica, the Traveling Wall is large enough to stand in for the ways that visitors interact with the original memorial in Washington. Built of powder-coated aluminum so that the names could be engraved, just as they are on the original, visitors may take a rubbing of specific names as a memento. This practice has become a common ritual in D.C., and paper with pencils will be provided onsite for this purpose while the wall is on display at NaplesChurch. Volunteers with locator books will be available to help visitors find a specific name on the wall.
Visitors may take advantage of the opportunity to commemorate the lives of service members who died in the Vietnam War when the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall is hosted by NaplesChurch over Veterans Day week. COURTESY OF AVOW HOSPICE
In addition to the wall, a helicopter from the Vietnam War will be on display. Since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has, in more recent years, become a proxy monument for people wishing to honor veterans who lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, pieces of the World Trade Center will also be on display at NaplesChurch during this commemoration. Additionally, a memorial to honor veterans of all wars, called a battlefield cross, will be on display for visitors to interact with. Dating back possibly as far as the Civil War and originally meant to mark where a soldier was temporarily buried on the battlefield, a battlefield cross is a rifle planted muzzle down into combat boots with a helmet atop the butt. Dog tags are then draped over the helmet. NaplesChurch will provide dog tags on which visitors may write veterans’ names and small American flags to place around the battlefield cross.
The pickup and trailer carrying the Traveling Wall will arrive in Naples as part of a funerary-style escort procession. First responders typically form part of the escort, and motorcyclists often join as well. Mr. Russo said anyone is welcome to join the escort by arriving at its starting point, Publix Super Market at Bonita Grande Crossing, before the starting time of 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 10.
After the escort arrives at NaplesChurch, an opening ceremony will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., featuring speakers, color guard, youth choir and a pinning ceremony for around 50 veterans. The Vietnam veteran lapel pins that will be presented to recognize, honor and thank Vietnam-era vets are part of the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration that was authorized by Congress and launched by President Obama in 2012, to run until 2025.
Since the wall’s 142 sections require about three hours to assemble, it will not be ready for display at the opening ceremony. The wall will open at 6 p.m. Nov. 10 and will remain open to visitors 24 hours a day until the closing ceremony at 9 a.m. Monday, Nov. 15. Lighting will be provided for walking around the wall at night, and security will be onsite. While it may sound strange that the memorial is open 24 hours a day, there’s a logical reason: With fewer visitors, nightfall affords semi-privacy to veterans who wish to be alone during their pilgrimages to honor fallen comrades at the memorial.
“We encourage (host sites) to have it open 24 hours a day for the simple fact that there are vets who don’t want to deal with the public but want to come out and see their buddies,” Mr. Russo said. “So, they’ll come out at 3 a.m. to visit their buddies’ (names) on the wall. There’s a reason they’re coming out at 3 in the morning.”
Visiting the memorial can evoke a variety of emotions in visitors. For some, the visit is a commemoration or a celebration of a vet’s life. For others, the visit brings mourning.
“It’s the first step in the healing process to come out and say hello — or goodbye,” Mr. Russo said. “There are people who never met their parent and their dad is on the wall. Or a soldier didn’t feel good one night, so his buddy went out on patrol for him and got killed. So, he’s been living with survivor’s guilt for 50 years. You’ll see a mix of emotions at the wall, from happy to this 70-year-old guy bawling his eyes out.”
Because the wall can open the first step of healing, a variety of agencies will be on hand to offer a way to the second step. Grief clinicians from Avow Hospice are serving as the lead onsite group for providing this service 24 hours a day, said Trish Childress, director of supportive services for Avow. Elite DNA Therapy Services and the local VA Center will provide additional staffing during peak hours. These services will mainly be providing information about how to continue long-term with the healing process but will also be available for crisis intervention, if needed.
“Our presence is going to be looking for emotional expressions and going up to offer, ‘Are you OK — anything we can provide for you?’” Ms. Childress said. “Some people might be receptive and some might not, so we’ll slip a card to them to contact us. We’ll try to identify if they are veterans and connect them to the VA Center, if they’re willing, keeping in mind that not all veterans want to associate with the VA. My staff will keep an eye out for anyone who is isolating and bringing out their tissues — and tears are OK — but we just want to connect to offer help.” ¦
In the KNOW
Contacts for organizations listed in this article
» The Vietnam Traveling Memorial
» Vietnam War Commemoration
» Avow Hospice
» Elite DNA Therapy Services
» Veterans Affairs