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Vietnam Veterans Moving Wall stirs up emotions

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Posted: Sunday, July 28, 2002 10:00 pm

Never to be forgotten, the names of 58,225 people are inscribed on the black facade of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Those 58,225 names have also been engraved on a smaller version of the Memorial Wall called the Moving Wall, which went on display in Lodi on Saturday.

Standing before the wall at Cherokee Memorial Park on Sunday, a woman wiped her eyes with a tissue as she read a hand-printed letter left on the ground in front of the wall.

Another man, with tears streaming down his face, watched as a volunteer carefully made a rubbing of the name of a comrade who had died in the war.

Nearly an exact replica of the memorial in Washington, the Moving Wall was the brainchild of Vietnam Veteran John Devitt. After attending the dedication of the original wall in 1982, Devitt was moved to share his experience with those who could not visit the original wall in Washington.

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United States Vietnam veterans salute the flag during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on Saturday morning at Cherokee Memorial Park. (Mary Min Vincent/News-Sentinel)

The Moving Wall, which extends more than 250 feet, is a portable exhibit that has been touring the country for the past 20 years.

On Saturday, the Moving Wall exhibit opened at Cherokee Memorial Park, allowing local veterans, their friends and families, and the rest of the public to experience the solemn presence of the jet-black monument. And to find the names of their fallen loved ones.

People began to fill the grounds, walking slowly past the Moving Wall, extending hands to feel thousands of engraved names beneath their fingertips.

Boxes of tissues lay on the ground before the wall, placed there by thoughtful volunteers, anticipating the tears that were sure to fall.

From California alone, 5,576 men and women lost their lives in Vietnam. Of those, 92 were from San Joaquin County, with 52 from nearby Stockton and 12 from Lodi.

Considering the size of these towns and places 40 years ago, those were significant losses, Sam Swofford said in his remarks during Saturday morning's opening ceremonies.

Speakers included Vietnam veterans Brig. Gen. Ezell Ware Jr. and special guest Sgt. Richard A. Pittman, a Medal of Honor recipient from the United States Marine Corps.

Other guests included Vietnamese veterans and members of the Vietnamese Sacramento and Stockton chapters of the Former Political Prisoner Association.

Anh Troung attended the opening ceremonies with the Stockton group.

Troung, of Stockton, was a former noncommissioned officer with the South Vietnamese Army. He spent six years in a concentration camp in Saigon after being captured.

The Bliskes, a military family from Watsonville who now reside in Lodi, also attended the opening ceremonies.

They were there to support a son and brother, Larry, who served in Vietnam "in the worst part at the worst time," his sister, Laura, said.

"The only time I ever saw my father cry, the only time," she said, "was when he saw my brother, Larry, coming up the walk. He was coming home from Vietnam."

And though he survived, Larry Bliske lost many friends in the fighting.

"I was in a battle where 60 men were killed in one night," he said.

The resilient Bliske stood at the Moving Wall searching for names and finding people he said were important to him in Vietnam.

"Their potential is locked here, in this wall," Bliske said, his eyes becoming misty. "They're all wonderful people who were asked to do a job. And they did it."

The ceremonies came to a close as the detail from Travis Air Force Base fired a 21 gun salute, followed by the performance of "Taps" by bugler Bob Thompson. An Army helicopter flew overhead, trailing away into the horizon.

But the ceremonies did not mark the end of the Moving Wall exhibit. The wall is open 24 hours a day until Aug. 2, and floodlights light the wall at night so that visitors can come at all hours.

Volunteers stand by to help people find the names of friends and loved ones, and free paper is provided so that etchings of the names can be kept long after the Moving Wall has gone to another city.

"You see it on TV, but it's not the same effect," said Lodi resident Don Soares as he slowly walked the length of the wall Sunday afternoon.

For Stockton resident Robbie Swan, the wall brought back a flood of memories that dampened his eyes.

Standing before the wall with his daughter, Swan touched the medals he had pinned to his shirt for the occasion. For his service in the Army in 1967 and 1968, Swan received two bronze stars, one with a gold leaf.

"I brought my daughter here to let her know some of the things that happened," he said, recalling writing to the mother of one of his fallen comrades.

Thirty years later, he contacted her again, and she told him that she had never gotten over the death of her son, he said.

"Sometimes you think you forget about this, but you never do," he said softly.

News-Sentinel staff writer Layla Bohm contributed to this article.


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