Reunion conjures memories, fosters camaraderie
Linda Ciolfi participates in the Laying of Wreaths Ceremony for the Vietnam Wall.
The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall and the 32nd annual Vietnam and All Veterans Reunion attracted an estimated 80,000 veterans, family members and other visitors from across the nation and abroad to Wickham Park in Melbourne.
Billed as the largest reunion of its kind in the nation, the weeklong event organized by Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, Inc. and coordinated by Richard “Doc” Russo, concluded May 12.
The Traveling Memorial Wall arrived May 5 at Wickham Park and was escorted by an estimated 1,500 motorcyclists, including some from the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office.
A day later, veterans and others gathered for the Laying of Wreaths and the Wall’s opening ceremony.
Nearly 100 wreaths were presented by various veterans organizations, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, social and church groups. Some brought wreaths for recently deceased veterans who were members of the sponsoring organizations.
Dr. Elizabeth Pepe of Indian Harbour Beach, who served six years in the U.S. Army and is a member of the First Cavalry Association, presented a wreath in honor of the late Ken Baker, who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. She was assisted by Tommy Blackwell, sergeant at arms of Vietnam Veterans of Brevard and who served two tours in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965 and again in 1967.
During the opening ceremonies, U.S. Air Force Chaplain Capt. Jeff Hill of Patrick Air Force Base gave the invocation; Ken Torres sang the National Anthem; The Battlefield Cross was presented by Young Marines of Brevard; John Winchester played the bagpipes; and Rob Medina, a former Marine representing U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, gave an inspirational talk on the importance of children and tradition of the military.
Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey urged the audience to remember our heroes, and Col. Kurt Matthews, commander of the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, gave an inspiring presentation on family, tradition and continuity within the military.
Just walking along the Traveling Memorial Wall, which is a 60-percent replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., veterans whispered names of places and battles long forgotten by many, but not forgotten by those who lived through such battles. Some of those names such as Khe Sanh, Quang Tri, Quang Traung, Plei Ku, Phu Lo, Da Nang, Hill 875, Slope 76, The Tet Offensive and many more are not forgotten. Vietnam and the All Veterans Reunion also includes veterans of Korea, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and others who have their own lists.
Veterans of World War II and Korea were among those attending the ceremony.
George Rosenfield of Viera, a World War II and Korean War veteran who served with the 10th Mountain Division, helped lay a wreath. Wilber Cone of Branson in Levy County and George Norris of Micco both marched in a Color Guard during the Massing of the Colors on May 11.
Vietnam veteran Martin McAlwee of West Melbourne got down on one knee at the Wall, placing a list of six names of personnel killed during a rescue mission near Da Nang. He was a captain with the 366th Fighter Wing, participating with the Jolly Greens rescue helicopters.
Billy Isaacs of Rockledge was a Navy Corpsman assigned to the Marines whose location happened to be near a “soon to be infamous” Khe Sanh. The siege at Khe Sanh lasted 77 days with U.S. losses totaling 205 killed and 1,600 wounded. Enemy losses were estimated to be around 15,000.
“All the C-130 airplane pilots should get a medal for their daring under heavy enemy fire for bringing in supplies to sustain our troops,’’ McAlwee said.
Not to be lost among the stories of these veterans of war, is that of Billy Steer. Now a reverend, Steer was an Army Specialist 4 with a unit in the Central Highlands region of South Vietnam, near the borders of Cambodia and Laos. Hill 875 and Dak To saw some of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Although Steer was shot three times in heavy fighting, he survived by pulling his dead fellow soldiers over himself as enemy troops came along and shot survivors in the head. He lost his right arm in that combat.
Steer has written several books and he travels the world to promote veterans’ causes. He lives in Cabot, Arkansas, and he often visits Central Florida. He was named No. 682nd by President George W.H. Bush as one of the One Thousand Points of Light.
For information on Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, call 321-690-0805 or go to VietnamandAllVeteransofBrevard.com.