Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall honors painful memories
Tim Thomas, a JROTC instructor at Viera High and a Melbourne city council member, points to the name of a friend who died in Afghanistan.
SENIOR LIFE Darrell Woehler
Florida’s 31st annual Vietnam and All Veterans Reunion was held April 19 to 25 at Wickham Park.
In conjunction with the reunion, the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall was on display from April 15 to 22 at the park.
In addition this year and calling attention to an on-going national problem, a U.S. Flag display grouping of 660 flags was set up just west of the Vietnam Wall and along the lake. It represented the estimated 660 military veterans that commit suicide each month — 22 per day, every day of the year.
The veteran suicide death rate in any approximate seven-year period is nearly equal to the more than 58,000 names on the Wall.
This 3/5th size replica of the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. was escorted from Eastern Florida State College in Cocoa by approximately 900 motorcycles and riders on Sunday morning, April 15. The wall is 288-feet long and 6-foot tall at its highest point.
Opening ceremonies were held Monday night, April 16 at Wickham Park in conjunction with an impressive wreath-laying presentation by more than 60 military and civic organizations.
A large crowd was on hand for the presentation and to hear the main speakers for the evening — Col. Kurt Matthews, Commander of the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base; Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, Melbourne; Mayor Kathy Meehan, whose husband is a Vietnam Veteran; and other dignitaries.
The Jupiter Middle School Choral Group sang the National Anthem and various other patriotic songs in musical tribute to this patriotic evening.
The entire week’s activities for the 31st annual Vietnam and All Veterans Reunion were sponsored by Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, Inc. The driving force behind this reunion, the nation’s largest such event, was Richard “Doc” Russo, the president, Wall chairman and reunion chairman.
“I must be a glutton for punishment, but this is a labor of love,’’ Russo said.
But, he had help from his wife Suzanne, several committees and volunteers. It is estimated that 85,000 people attended the reunion.
Dozens of military displays by vendors and organizations, live music, food and drinks, POW/MIA ceremonies, The Last Patrol and
The Moving Tribute highlighted
Russo earned the nickname Doc while serving as a Navy Hospital Corpsman for 8½ years in the U.S. Navy. His military career was cut short by a medical discharge due to a broken back.
The Navy’s loss was Brevard County’s gain. He started as a night watchman for the wall locally as a way he says, “to give back.” Now 57, Russo runs things locally for
the reunion, then takes it on the road from April to November. There are 15 different stops in the south and midwest.
On the wall, 39,996 soldiers were just 22 years old or younger.
Lance Bednarek, a Vietnam Air Force veteran, and his wife Debra of Melbourne came out to view the Opening Ceremonies.
Sue Riel and Nearolene Taylor, both of Palm Bay, took time to review a map of Vietnam and note where Riel’s brother had served.
Joan Barco of Melbourne made her way along the Wall. She served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 as a Captain in the Army and was the first woman assigned to the 1st Aviation Brigade.
The headquarters of The Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, Inc. is located on King Street in Cocoa. The museum includes items left at the Wall such as photos, flags, military pins and dog tags.
Next year, the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall will be on display from May 5 to 12.
The 32nd annual Vietnam and All Veterans Reunion will be held from May 9 to 12.
For more information, call 321-690-0805 or 321-652-4185 or go to floridaveteransreunion.com
See photo gallery online at vieravoice.com/Galleries/index.php/gallery/908/