This November will be the 39th anniversary of the Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Where did those 39 years go? Is Vietnam getting to be only a memory?
I hope not.
Some 39-plus years ago a young architect name Maya Lin submitted a proposal. Critics then called her black-granite design “too abstract.” Nevertheless, Lin’s design was approved. Today, the Wall draws 4.5 to 5 million visitors each year.
Of the 58,000 names listed on the Wall, only eight of them are women, from about 10,000 who served as nurses in Vietnam.
The idea for the memorial came to veteran Jan Scruggs in l979 while he was watching “The Deer Hunter,” a movie that brought him many flashbacks.
Then there is the moving Wall. This moving Wall has been in Pierre twice, the latest was at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial dedication. It contains 58,000 names of those who didn’t return. They were mainly a bunch of 18, 19 and 20 years olds. They went off to war expecting to come home to family and friends. Some returned home in body bags.
South Dakota wasn’t spared. If you go to the Memorial in Pierre next to Capitol Lake, the names of 208 young men who died are etched there from the 28,000 South Dakotans who served with honor.
But most South Dakotans did return. Some unscathed, some shot up, hurt and only now beginning to tell their stories. Like the war veterans before them, enough time has passed so the pain of speaking out has numbed.
I’ve talked to a lot of them, wrote down their comments and often thought how fortunate I was during my years in the service.
I saw the results of that war though when I had duty of burial detail at Bayamon National cemetery in Puerto Rico. I watched mothers cry, looked at the friends and families, heads bowed, crying and trying to figure it all out. I watched Father Calimano, the old priest in his simple white robe, put his arm around them and say “buena gente” (good people), as they walked away from the burial site.
One morning over breakfast the week before the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial dedication in Pierre, I had time to listen to Ken Korkow. Ken is one of the most decorated Vietnam vets in South Dakota. What he did was heroic and I often ask myself what is a hero. I can tell you now. I had breakfast with one: Pastor Ken Korkow.
I worked in the state office of economic development with Charlie Turbiville and Wayne Mundt, both men decorated with medals for their service. And there is Pat Hoing and Dennis Foell; both men were awarded bronze stars.
Tom Magedanz walked the mountains and valleys of Vietnam as a Marine corporal. He told me about roaming around in the jungle in the rain that never stopped. It reminded me of a scene from the movie “Forest Gump,” when he and Bubba are back to back in a foxhole full of water.
Tom was a longtime Legislative Research Council aide to the state House and Senate Agricultural and Natural Resource Committees. He sat patiently through those committee meetings for years, a far cry from the jungles of Vietnam.
Fort Pierre’s Mike McClelland is still carrying around shrapnel in the roof of his mouth. Those I’ve mentioned here are just a few of many.
South Dakota had three Medal of Honor recipients: General Patrick Brady, Sp/4 Michael Fitzmaurice and Colonel Leo Thorsness.
Since Vietnam, we’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting two completely different kind of wars. The common denominator, death, is still there. Young men and women die. That’s war.
For those Vietnam veterans in South Dakota and the families and friends of those who were killed or missing – they are not forgotten. We need to be constantly reminded of their sacrifices and contributions. We also need to be reminded that the Vietnam era vets are getting older. Time is running out to tell them “thanks for your service.” Enough said.
Steve Nelson, a Pierre resident, is a longtime outdoor writer and photographer.