A time to heal
What may seem a long time ago, but just yesterday for those that were there, this war, by any measure has been referred to as the most controversial conflict in United States history. A war in which countless men and women, some as young as seventeen, found themselves in Southeast Asia, in a place called Vietnam.
While many had volunteered to serve, many were drafted. But all believed in, and loved their country, enough to write a blank check up to, and including their lives.
While the war has been over for more than four decades, countless that served in Vietnam continue to suffer.
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. needs no introduction. It is, well, a memorial that I will never forget visiting. I share my respect for all that served there, those that served during that era, and all Veterans.
This past weekend, Portage, Wisconsin hosted one of the traveling replicas of the Vietnam Memorial at the city’s Veterans Memorial Field.
When the Wall came to town, a procession led by US Navy and US Army Reserve Veteran Joyce Janson on her motorcycle, along with other Veterans, and civil servants, accompanied John Barron and the American Veterans Traveling Tribute to the field.
Different stewards as they call themselves, bring several existing Vietnam Wall Memorial replicas across the nation, giving people that may have not made the trip to D.C. an opportunity to heal, or at least make it available to them.
Many years ago, while serving as editor for the Ho-Chunk Nation’s Tribal Newspaper, I wrote a story about such a Steward. His name was Ron Bergsma and he and his wife were from the state of Washington. Ron was a Vietnam Combat Veteran as well. Through his paintings of the war through his eyes, and playing steward for a replica of The Wall, he was healing every day. Today, my friend Ron is at peace with his maker.
John Barron of Tyler, Texas is the steward of the American Veterans Traveling Tribute, a replica of the Vietnam Wall Memorial that holds 80% of the names on the original memorial. I asked John how he became steward of this wall, and his answer sounded familiar to Bergsma’s. “Quite literally, I was in the right place at the right time,” Barron said.
Barron was a medic and a firefighter in Texas for over 20 years. He had left his career to drive a truck for the Patriot Guard, in a group called ‘Welcome Home Soldiers’. The group’s focus was greeting soldiers arriving home at airports.
“I heard they needed somebody to drive one of these around. That was 10 years ago and I’m still going. It’s quite an honor and a privilege to be their caretaker and make sure no one forgets them. That’s what it’s about. There are 58,000+ men and women on that wall. I make sure no one forgets them, and that they get the honor and respect that they deserve.”
Barron stressed that the Wall doesn’t work without people coming to see it, and said, “As long as there is that one person that needs to see it, to finally take that step towards healing, it’s worth continuing to do.”
With Portage being the home of the American Legion Department of Wisconsin, it was only fitting that they are involved.
American Legion Department of Wisconsin Adjutant, and Navy Veteran Amber Nikolai, said, “At the Department Headquarters we wanted to do something to recognize that the Legion is 100 years old. We partnered with post 47 (Portage), got together, brainstormed what we can do here to not only honor our 100th, but what can we have that can be annual event that we can bring to Portage, with the headquarters of the American Legion being in Portage. How can we get the community involved, not only recognizing veterans in our 100th, but how can we also recognize our civil servants who serve in other capacities such as Firefighters, EMT, and Police?”
She continued saying, “We ended up getting a whole group of us together and started brainstorming what is now known as the Celebration of Freedom. How the wall came to be is we have a prominent legionnaire, a past Department Commander who is a Decorated Vietnam Veteran, who approached me and offered to pay the entire cost to sponsor the wall coming here. He’s asked that I not say his name, but he sponsored over $11,000. He will be here this weekend, but the humility, 2 purple hearts, bronze star recipient, he felt that’s what Portage needed, that’s what the community needed. That’s what kicked everything off.”
Nikolai noted she had visited traveling walls in the past, and the one thing that hurt her was that when Veterans visit the Wall, a can of worms is opened, there is healing, and then they leave.
Nikolai stated that she didn’t want that. “I wanted a reason for people to stay. I wanted a reason for veterans to not only be together and heal with each other, but let the community see that and be a part of that, along with Police, Firefighters, and EMTs that serve our community day in, day out. This was a collaborative effort. You’ll be able to see in the Legion Hall. We’ve got the history of the legion on display that came from the national organization, you’ll have several types of vendors here, a kickball tournament, and a cornhole tournament,” Nikolai said.
In addition to all the activities, Chris Koozie kicked off a concert Friday night, and on Saturday, Conscious Pilot played a classic rock concert.
Nikolai wanted the event to not only to ‘teach freedom’, but the sacrifices, and that the freedom is not free. Several area school groups also participated in a learning experience teaching just that while visiting the memorial. Nikolai said, “Everyone is responsible for teaching their communities.”
She stressed that veterans tend to isolate, and asked the question, how do we teach a community to not only cherish their freedom, but come alongside veterans who might be struggling?
“I think this is the best opportunity to do it,” she said, adding, “This will not be a one and done, we plan on doing this annually. We’re already talking next year of bringing in the post 9/11 wall that has been created. We hope that this continues.”
“The sponsorships and community relationships that we have gained from this are huge,” she said.
The American Legion is hoping that businesses will get behind us in the future and continue to support the effort of celebrating our freedom.
Nikolai stated that the Legion is grateful to the Ho-Chunk for their participation in leading the opening and closing ceremony. “We did not want it to be a platform of politicians and individuals coming. We realize that no one knows how to welcome home any warrior better than what the native culture does,” she said.
In a somber and humble talk to those gathered last Thursday morning, Nikolai spoke to the hard work that over forty Veteran and community volunteers did putting up the Memorial Wall, expressing her gratitude.
While the Vietnam War is over, many personal wars continue to be fought. Many continue to heal, and all deserve to be remembered and respected.
Two words, only two simple, but deep and sacred words, Welcome Home! Words never too late to say, to share, to utter. At the very least, to all that served far from home, in a place called Vietnam.
I had the honor to speak with a few Vietnam Veterans that morning. I asked the simple question; ‘How do you feel with this Memorial coming here?’ Out of respect to them and all Veterans, I give you their un edited responses;
Joyce Janson- “US Navy 67-70 Army Reserve for 22+ years after that. This wall means more than I could ever say. It’s our honor to be here.”
(This gentleman did not give his name)- “Sargent in the US Marine Corp, 2351275 ‘66-‘70- Vietnam from ‘69-’70. I’m just here because I want to give the names on this wall the respect and honor, they deserve. It means a lot. Thank you to the legion post. You guys are awesome.”
Richard Snake Ho-Chunk Tribal Member, US Army- “This wall we had the 50% wall in Black River Falls and I helped put that up. It was really heart-touching to see a lot of the people that come in and look at it and check the names on it. To me, I know I have a lot of relatives from Winnebago, Nebraska and Black River Falls that have been in the service, Vietnam era. Myself, I was stateside, so I didn’t get over there, but my crew, we went in October 1970. After we got done with training, we, the bunch I was with, were the rear-guards for the ones that were coming out of Vietnam at that time. I was stateside until ’75, doing artillery training. That was about it for me. I’m proud to be here and proud to have all of these Vietnam veterans with us yet today. I honor these ones that are on the wall.”
Gary Anderson- “US Marine Corp Sargent ’65 to ’69. I was in Vietnam from ‘67 to ‘68 during TET, served in Da Nang and Chu Lai. Bien Hua. I’ve got some fond memories, and some not so fond. I’ve got a few buddies on the wall so I had to help.”
Dean Simonson- “1965 to 1970 served in Bien Hua area ’68 and ‘69. We’ve got six Portage people on this wall. I’m happy to bring the wall to people who couldn’t go to Washington DC to see it.”
Pat Hartley- “Navy- ‘‘65-’71 I was in or off Vietnam 3 out of the 6 years I was there. The most in-depth was the Riverines down in the Mekong Delta in ’68 and ‘69. The chance to come back and honor the guys that didn’t come back. It’s always tough to get around a wall like this because it makes you think about the guys that gave everything, like the old saying goes, that didn’t come back. I’m proud to help out.”
Norm Bednarek- “I got drafted in 1970 into the Army. I continued on after basic training in the signal corp. I did not go to Vietnam, I was fortunate enough not to go there, but there’s a lot of my brothers that went there. I’ve heard the experiences and was so fortunate not to have to go there. I still need to honor them, not only with this wall, but with the things I want to do for veterans. They need the help and I’m willing to help them out. I did see the wall in Washington- it’s a place of honor. I think this is the next best thing right here. For four days it’s going to be a place of honor. I’m glad to be a part of it. The surprising thing when you go to Washington DC is a lot of people are happy and talking to each other, but then they get to the Vietnam Wall and all of a sudden, it’s dead quiet. It’s so solemn. The first time I went to the wall, I started looking for guys, but I just couldn’t stay. I had to leave. My wife said, ‘we just got here’ but we were leaving. It’s tough.”