|Your author (center, in jeans) and the last men to leave Vietnam|
I'll never forget the first time I visited The Wall, the poignant Washington DC memorial that pays tribute to the more than 58,000 American men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Vietnam War. It was the summer of 1994. I was a correspondent with People magazine at the time and was in DC to meet with the legendary last American troops to leave Vietnam.
Earlier that year, I'd become the first journalist to identify, interview and bring together these brave Marines, who were on the last helicopter to evacuate Vietnam from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975. The magazine brought six of them to San Diego, where I hosted a reunion for them. It was the first time most of them had seen each other since that night they left Saigon nearly 20 years before. They told me, among other things, that they waited hours for that final chopper. They all thought they'd been left behind.
It was shocking to me that these men, who are a part of American history, had never been officially identified by the Department of Defense. After producers of the musical Miss Saigon read my story, they brought all these guys, and a few more that were unable to come to San Diego, and me to Washington DC to be the special guests at the Kennedy Center premiere of the touring musical, which recreates that historic helicopter flight.
The day after we attended the play, we all met up at The Wall. Many of these guys had surprisingly not been there before, either. It was an emotional moment for all of us. There wasn't a dry eye among these tough Marines when they started swapping stories about some of their fallen comrades.
At the Kennedy Center the night before, as these men watched the scene in the play that depicted that harrowing and now infamous escape from the embassy roof, I could sense that they felt they were finally getting the recognition they deserved.
"This play brought tears to my eyes," S.Sgt. David Norman told me. "It really brought it all back." In the photo above, from left to right, the eight Marines on that last chopper out who I was honored to meet while covering this story were Sgt. Maj. Terry Bennington, M. Sgt. Juan Valdez, S.Sgt. Mike Sullivan, Lt. Col. Jim Kean, Gunnery Sgt. Robert Schlager, S.Sgt. Norman, Cpl. Stephen Bauer, and Sgt. Stephen Schuller.
The VA has only recently updated its list of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships that operated in or near Vietnam during the war 50 years ago.
As the blog points out, the list of Navy and Coast Guard ships can help Vietnam veterans find out if they qualify for presumption of Agent Orange exposure when seeking disability compensation for Agent Orange-related diseases. The medical conditions presumed to be associated with Agent Orange can be found at VA’s web site.
Thankfully, many more good Americans will not let VA forget those who served, and died, in Vietnam. And The Wall continues to grow.
In fact, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), whose mission is to preserve the memorial's legacy, promote healing and educate about the impact of the Vietnam War, has just announced that it has coordinated with local organizations and volunteers nationwide in a call for photographs and back stories of veterans listed on The Wall for display at its Educational Center.
Plans for the exhibitions at the Center include the display of pictures and stories of those who did in that war, some of the 400,000 items left at The Wall, and a celebration of service member values in all wars. There are still about 26,000 Vietnam veterans listed on The Wall who need corresponding photographs and stories.
The call for photos is tied to the Faces Never Forgotten campaign, encouraging friends and families of veterans and all Americans to ensure that the memories and stories of those inscribed on The Wall are never forgotten. VVMF hopes to give every soldier the honor of being fully remembered as a person and not just a name.
For info on the Education Center at The Wall or submitting a photo, visit www.vvmf.org or call 866-990-WALL.