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Honor and Respect: Vietnam Memorial Traveling Wall Visits Penn State

by on October 05, 2017 5:30 AM

While the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall is not quite as large as the original in Washington, D.C., the emotional impact may be just as big.

An 80-percent-size replica, the Traveling Wall serves as a unique chance for those who can’t make it to the capital to remember and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country during a difficult time in our nation’s history.

The names on the wall of the 58,159 service men and women who died during the war are all on the replica as well. It will give those who remember the war a chance to reflect, and those who don’t a chance to learn.

The wall came to Innovation Park at Penn State on Wednesday and will be there until Sunday afternoon. It follows the September premiere of the WPSU documentary A Time to Heal, and the Ken Burns 10 part, 18-hour PBS documentary The Vietnam War.

Bob Booz of Centre Hall helped bring the wall to Penn State and he knows about the cost of the war. Now a retired Penn State employee, Booz served as an Air Force pilot during the war, flying in and out of combat zones to bring soldiers and supplies to the ground.

Special section: Town&Gown's Salute to Veterans: The Traveling Wall visits Centre County

“Food, ammunition, beer,” says Booz. “We flew it all in and out to them. And you can imagine, these guys wanted their beer and their steaks, just like I am sure that guys in Iraq and Afghanistan want. And that’s what we did all day.”

Booz flew tired troops and supplies all day. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying safely out of an enemy attack, along with many other medals. Booz says being on the committee to bring the wall to Penn State has brought difficult memories back up of one mission that happened 5 months into his tour of duty.

After dropping off troops at a location, he was asked to carry deceased servicemen back to his base.

“Twenty-seven names are on that wall that I brought out of the jungle that day,” Booz says. “I wish I knew who they were so I could pay my respects. But that is why we are bringing the wall here, because it does bring back memories — some good, some bad. It is important for all people to have a chance to remember and honor those who served.”

It is a difficult endeavor to bring the largest traveling wall memorial to the area, and Booz has been part of a committee that has been planning for more than a year. Once the wall opens to the public at noon on Thursday, it will remain open all day and night continuously until 3 p.m. Sunday, requiring a dedicated group of community members to volunteer. WPSU, Penn State, and a number of community groups have been instrumental in bringing the wall to the area and making these events happen, Booz says.

“Really all these events, the documentary, the wall and numerous other things going on all at the same time, hopefully give the soldiers a chance for the homecoming they didn’t get after the war,” he says. “A chance to be honored and respected, and like the title of the documentary, a time to heal.”

Bob Booz, a Vietnam veteran who is co-chair of the committee to bring The Traveling Wall to Centre County, earned numerous medals for his service in the Air Force. Photo by Vincent Corso/Town & Gown

Deb Burger and her family have been looking for a chance to heal for a long time. Her brother Major Lewis P. Smith II was shot down on a mission between Laos and Vietnam in May 1968, and was declared missing in action. Since that time her family has been trying to find out what happened to her brother after the plane went down. She is one of 15 Pennsylvanians whose Vietnam-era stories are a part of the WPSU documentary A Time to Heal.

The stories in the documentary show a wide slice of perspectives on the war, from those who served to those who opposed the war, in order to tell the whole story of what was occurring during those turbulent times. It asks if we are ready to move on from that difficult era of American history, and if it truly is a time to heal.

Burger says talking about her story during the documentary and seeing the wall are more instances where she has to relive everything that happened to her and her family during that time. She was only 11 years old when her brother went missing. He was never found. Her family is still looking for closure all these years later.

Years after Smith went missing, his Penn State class ring was found in Laos and returned to the family, and the government feels it located the crash site. But Burger says there are still questions that need to be answered.

“There is still this thought in my head, that yes, we have his class ring and this is how they say that it was found,” says Burger. “But we don’t know what really happened. I won’t know until we can find his remains, if he died during the impact of the crash, or if something else happened to him.”

Government officials have told Burger that they aim to dig for his remains at the presumed crash site by 2019. Complications have arisen because of a dam that has caused part of the area to be flooded by water, but the hope is that they will still dig and find her brother’s remains so the family can find some peace.

Burger will visit the Traveling Wall and find her brother’s name, just like she has on multiple trips to the wall in D.C. She says she feels it is important to remember and honor those who have served, especially those who served in Vietnam and came home to difficult conditions.

“These men and women served our country and came back and were treated poorly; some were spit on and called names,” Burger says. “Hopefully, now, we can honor them as they should have been then.”

Kevin Weatherly is the CEO of American Veterans Traveling Tribute, the company that brings this wall to locations around the country. Weatherly says the reactions to the wall vary from town to town and day to day.

Weatherly expects a large crowd. A motorcycle honor escort that led the wall from the Bellefonte Weis supermarket and traveled down Interstate 99 to University Park on Wednesday afternoon.

An opening ceremony will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, with 50 Vietnam veterans to be recognized along with remarks by Penn State president Eric Barron and alumnus, trustee and retired Navy SEAL Ryan McCombie.

Friday is designated as education day. Many local school districts will be visiting the memorial that day, giving children a chance to learn about the war and the era, Booz says.

There will be information tents at the memorial and counselors on hand.

“The wall affects people differently, and for some people who can’t get to D.C., this is their chance to finally get some of those pent-up feelings out, so it is good for people to have support while they are there,” Weatherly says.

Alfred Turgeon served as a helicopter pilot for the Army during the war. A retired Penn State professor, Turgeon says he sees some similarities in the polarization of society then and today.

“I know a lot of the names on that wall, so it will be good to go and pay respects to old friends,” says Turgeon. “But it is also good in another respect because the Vietnam War ended badly. Even worse was the way combatants were treated when they got home. And now a lot of people have seemed to have rethought that. So we have a chance to treat them with a certain level of respect that wasn’t there 40 to 50 years ago.”

Turgeon and Booz say they understand that people might use this as an opportunity to protest things from the past or current events. Both former service members say this was the kind of freedom of speech that they fought for.

But they say it is important that all people involved be respectful and understand that there may be many emotional people at the wall.

“It is important that people understand what the names on the wall represent, that people gave their lives for their freedom,” says Booz.

Turgeon sees the wall as a great part in a series of events to support vets in the community.

“Because so many things are going on leading up to the wall, and it being Veterans Appreciation Month with many activities in the area to appreciate vets, it really is a good time to honor veterans and hopefully there is a large turnout,” says Turgeon.

These other events include a lecture series about the Vietnam War at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg at 2 p.m. on Sundays from Oct. 15 to Nov. 5.

A “Welcome Home” luncheon for Vietnam vets at the Hintz Family Alumni Center on the Penn State campus on Nov. 2 is also a way to honor those who came home to less than receptive conditions, Turgeon says. Those who are interested in the event can contact Mary Fisk at (814) 863-0465.

For many who don’t remember the war, the Traveling Wall is a chance to learn something new and pay respects to those who fought for our country. Cameron Arthur, a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, wasn’t alive during the war, but he feels it is important to honor those who sacrificed before him.

“The amount of names you see on that wall is humbling. When you see the names and think of the sacrifices that people made, it really puts it into perspective,” Arthur says. “I think that when people see it, it can help them appreciate these men and women who died for our freedom, especially since they weren’t well-regarded at the time.”

It is a sentiment repeated by Booz.

“When people see the wall and the 59,000-some names on it, it hopefully leaves an impression,” says Booz. “Hopefully we are able to honor these service members in a way that wasn’t done so long ago, and people can learn something about a war that affected a generation.”



Vincent Corso is a freelance writer from State College.
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