Wall stirs emotions, memories
Marilyn Thompson visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Moving Wall because of all the names on the wall.
But she brought a flower for only one.
Thompson's nephew, James Thompson, a 19-year old soldier from Independence, Mo., died in Vietnam when a metal building he was in was bombed.
"My sister-in-law says she doesn't even know if she buried her own son that she might have buried someone else's son," Thompson said. "But his spirit's in heaven, so it doesn't really matter."
Throughout the wall's weeklong visit to Tonganoxie, visitors streamed to the site. Even Monday's chill and drizzle failed to dampen enthusiasm.
Monday afternoon, Larry Meadows, chairman of the VFW moving wall project, showed an educational video to school children in the shelter of a large tented area while other visitors ambled along the sidewalks that line the wall.
Fewer people visited the wall during the last week than during the wall's first visit to Tonganoxie in 1996, when an estimated 35,000 people visited the wall. VFW member Harold Denholm estimated 18,000 people had stopped at the wall through Monday.
"But attendance isn't what matters," Denholm said. "What's more important is that we put out a quality program with honor and dignity."
Denholm said it helped that the VFW had such a nice park in which to display the wall.
"We had our groundbreaking in October, 1995, and the wall came here for the first time in October 1996," Denholm said. It helped then as now, that sidewalks were designed with the wall in mind, Denholm said. "Larry (Meadows) never runs anything second class it's always top-notch."
Meadows praised the community for its supporting the wall's visit to Tonganoxie. "It has been a complete community effort in all things, including financial support, food donations and in having people stay in the park and welcome visitors," Meadows said.
About 30 post members helped with the event, Meadows said.
"A lot of them came early every day and stayed late every day."
Each day of the wall's visit included a keynote speaker. Mike Crow, Tonganoxie city attorney and a Vietnam veteran, spoke to about 250 people Saturday morning. The wall helped him come to terms with what happened in Vietnam, Crow said.
"The first time I saw it, all I saw was the blackness."
With the help of other veterans, Crow said his outlook changed. "I'm able now to have a different look at it to see the laughter and smiles behind the names," he said.
Crow said he learned another valuable lesson: "The value of a life is not measured by how long you're here, but by what you do while you're here."
Still, Crow said he cannot overlook the repercussions of the war. "The 58,479 men and women who lost their lives are not just missed by their family and friends," he said. "In many cases, if the soldiers had come back they would have had children and even grandchildren by now."
Problems suffered by the soldiers who did come back are long-lasting, Crow said. He noted that Vietnam veterans have a higher incidence of hepatitis C than the general population does. Post-traumatic stress disorder can show up as one type of dysfunction or another, even decades after the war.
Crow, 54, walks with a cane, necessary because he went down in a 1969 helicopter crash in Vietnam after serving as an infantry platoon leader for nine months. At first he was paralyzed from the waist down.
Crow quoted Max Cleland, former head of the Veterans Administration in
Washington, D.C., and now a United States senator from Georgia: "Life breaks us all, and afterward many are strong at the broken places."
After Crow spoke, Marilyn Thompson placed a daisy at the base of the wall beneath her nephew's name. She said that visiting the wall reminded her of the price paid by everyone.
"All those kids lots of them were only 18 or 19 years old and they really didn't need to be over there fighting that war," Thompson said. "I feel that I'm there to honor all of them. Everybody on that wall lost their lives, it's not just my nephew."