Vietnam Traveling Wall comes to Brevard


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The Traveling Wall returned to Wickham Park for the Vietnam and All Veterans Reunion April 19 to 26.

They came from all over the United States, these U.S. war veterans, and each man or woman had their own reason for being at the Vietnam and All Veterans Reunion at Wickham Park April 19 to 26.

Thousands came by all modes of transportation during this weekend. Though called a reunion, and there were some unit and group reunions, many came as individuals, hoping to, if not heal the pain, at least to ease the pain of long-ago memories and battles that, for some, feel all too recent. 

It’s hard to get this far into this story and not have mentioned The Traveling Vietnam Wall. The 3/5th size Vietnam Wall arrived from Cocoa with nearly 1,000 motorcycle escorts to a stormy setup on April 19. Opening ceremonies had to be canceled due to flooding rains and high winds. It almost seemed appropriate, looking back on the stormy history of the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. and the Vietnam War. Construction was completed in 1982 amid protests dating back to the Vietnam War itself. More than 58,000 names of military soldiers killed during the Vietnam War are engraved on the original wall and on this Traveling Wall, in the order they were killed.

Among the week’s activities: a Massing of the Colors, helicopter dust-off landing, “mess tents” — well, at least various types of food being served from a tent, including Savvas Alexander, a veteran of the Greek military — patches, pins and all types of military memorabilia, T-shirts, uniforms, etc. for sale; a Gold Star Mom Banner awarded; several traveling military museums and various military displays, including a memorial to “war dogs” killed in action, too. But you always get back to the centerpiece of this week-long event, billed as the largest of its kind in the United States: The Traveling Vietnam Wall.

It makes its return to Melbourne annually about this time, but there is something about the Wall that draws one to return. Watching at various times from dawn to dusk, and then the way lighting reflects at night, it’s like it has a force of its own. 

Men, women and children come, each having their own private reason for being there. Many come and just stare, lost in their own individual thoughts. 

Some come as a family, such as Troy Fairchild (who lost his father), and Sandra Hennes, as they try to explain to their son, Harley Hewitt, what those names mean. Overcome with grief and fighting tears, Troy fell to the ground.

A veteran suffering from Combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder did not want to give his name, but came just to remember “back then.” Ron “Doc” Abner, now of New Smyrna Beach, was a combat medic with the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam. While walking along the Wall, he struck up a conversation with Robert Stemler of Cocoa who flew B-51s over Europe during World War II as part of the 9th Air Force and the Army Air Corp. They bonded instantly. Several soldiers interviewed visiting the Wall had “Doc” for a nickname. Cynthia Hutchison, with Vietnam Veterans of Brevard, one of the main sponsors of the week’s activities, served as a drill sergeant, providing training for our soldiers. Then you look around, and like a ghost from the past, there stands George Norris in his Army dress green’s from World War II. Norris, now of Palm Bay and in his 90s, was a prisoner of war for 7 ½ months in the Philippines way “back then” in the 1940s.

There was a young man pushing an older gentleman in a wheelchair along the Wall. Getting the ride was Manuel Rios who was injured in Vietnam in 1966 and is still suffering after-effects, including cancer (think Agent Orange) now 49 years later. His son, David Rios, has been taking care of him.

The youth of our country was well represented, including the U.S. Navy Sea Cadets of Melbourne who had the distinct honor of providing an Honor Guard for the Wall during the day. Space Coast Young Marines participated in the Massing of the Colors. Among the very young was 3 ½-year-old Jason Dixon, grandson of Judy Dixon of Merritt Island. Jason was seen digging in the dirt with a toy bulldozer (i.e., future engineer) and then flying a miniature Army helicopter (i.e., future warrant officer). 

But back to the Wall again. If you stare at the Wall long enough, the names tend to blur together, and perhaps that may help you forget. But lest we forget, there are more than 58,000 individual names on that Wall and each one has an individual story, be it a son, daughter, father, mother or any other relative or friend. The Wall is a reminder that we should not let the names blur together. Honor our veterans always.