IN THE STILL OF THE EVENING, as the sun drenched the last day of August in golden light, a handful of volunteers wrapped up a long day. For a year they’d been planning for this date—the arrival of the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall in Faribault. Late Wednesday afternoon, the pick-up truck and trailer carrying memorial wall panels drove into this southeastern Minnesota city with an honorary escort of bikes, cars, military vehicles and more.
And now, as dusk descended, that trailer rested on a grassy expanse at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Thursday morning volunteers began erecting the 360-foot long by 8-foot high replica wall which officially opens this evening for public viewing at a 6:30 p.m ceremony. There’s a soft opening this afternoon. The wall will remain open 24/7 through the closing ceremony at 1 p.m. on Labor Day.
But before the crowds arrive—up to 20,000 are expected throughout the wall’s duration in Faribault—I got a preview of what visitors can expect. And what I saw touched me deeply. I can only imagine how the wall, still boxed in the trailer during my pre-unveiling perusal, will impact me.
I could see the emotion in Douglas, a life-long Faribault resident and Vietnam vet I met Wednesday evening while at the fairgrounds. I thanked him for his service. He grew quiet when I mentioned the horrors of war he experienced. But his mood shifted when I talked to him about the earlier processional into town. He appreciated the long overdue public show of respect and welcome home.
Inside the information center tent, key organizer Peter Van Sluis bent over his laptop working on last-minute details. We chatted for awhile, Van Sluis pointing me toward the temporary lounge for veterans who likely will need a place to gather their thoughts, to grieve, to cope, to lean on one another.
Inside I discovered couches and easy chairs circled into comfy coves, like a family living room. Members of the community pulled the furniture from their homes for the event.
Signs of support, flags, even a map of Vietnam, transform this space from fairgrounds beer garden to veterans’ lounge. In an adjoining room, photos from the Vietnam War are staged on tables and along walls.
Outside, a cluster of white crosses drew me to view images of soldiers, all Minnesotans who have died in wars since 9/11. I imagined the grief of PFC Moises A Langhorst’s family as I studied the freckled face of this 19-year-old killed in Iraq in 2004.
A separate field of crosses will honor those from a several county area who died in Vietnam. Such a display personalizes war. And for many of those who visit the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall and the accompanying displays, including items from a military museum, the impact will feel deeply personal.
I listened as a Vietnam vet, standing next to a military boat used in Vietnam, mentioned the expected arrival of another boat in which soldiers were blown apart. As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, I cringed inwardly, remembering similar stories shared by my combat soldier father. None of this is easy.
Organizer Van Sluis expects some veterans to struggle. And he also expects protesters of the Vietnam War. A special area has been set aside for them. I’d never thought of that possibility. And, as I considered likely protests, I thought, yes, this too is part of living in a free country.
It is because of the sacrifices of our military men and women that we are free, and remain free.
© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling