These electronic signs are stationed by the Rice County Highway Department building along Minnesota State Highway 3 across from the fairgrounds. They welcomed Vietnam veterans during Wednesday’s processional into Faribault from Owatonna.
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.
The back of the trailer carrying the wall.
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.
Signs await posting.
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.
A close-up of an image on the back of the wall trailer reveals the number who served.
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.
Peter Van Sluis, along with his wife, Virginia, and veteran Kirk Mansfield, led efforts to bring the wall to Faribault.
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.
Signage welcomes veterans to the veterans’ only lounge.
Locals brought in their personal furniture to furnish the lounge.
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.
Flags line a wall.
A map posted in the veterans’ lounge.
One of many Vietnam War photos displayed.
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.
Visitors can view items, like this jeep, part of a military exhibit.
Several military tents have been set up at the fairgrounds.
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.
Used during the Vietnam War, this 1968 boat is pocked with bullet holes. A viewing stairway will allow visitors to see the interior.
I noticed this sticker on the end of the boat.
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.
The area set aside for protesters, and posted as such, on the northwest side of the fairgrounds.
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.
The front of the wall trailer delivers a message of honor and respect.
It is because of the sacrifices of our military men and women that we are free, and remain free.
FYI: Click here to see a full schedule of events, for directions to the Rice County Fairgrounds and more.
© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling