PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — More than a thousand community members of all ages honored those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country as they attended the opening ceremonies for the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall on Thursday.
“The wall is a reminder to me of the sacrifice of our family and so many other families throughout the country,” said Vienna resident Sue Ryan, who looked for the name of her brother, Marine Robert L. Lockhart, who was killed in 1963 at the age of 32 in Vietnam during his second tour of duty, following the nearly hour-long program.
“You would think, after all of these years, it would get easier, but it doesn’t,” Ryan added as she choked back tears. “Being here brings it all back, like it was yesterday all of these people were taken.”
Aaron and Anita Cunningham from Marietta brought their four children – Caleb, 6; Isaac, 5; Sophia, 3, and Sierra, 1 – to the opening ceremony as a family outing. Aaron Cunningham said neither he nor his wife know of any family members or friends with names listed among the more than 58,000 on the wall, but thought it would be good for their children to learn about from an early age.
“This is more for me to see the flags and the wall,” said Aaron Cunningham. “With as young as the kids are, I don’t know what they will take away from it, but I hope they will remember seeing the wall and what it means for their freedom.”
Greg Welsh, director of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, gave the statistics for the size of the wall and that there are more than 58,000 names of those service members lost in the Vietnam War before he continued.
“Those are statistics, but that is not what this wall is about,” Welsh said. “It’s about a kid seeing the name of a grandfather or uncle; it’s about a Gold Star family spending time with a loved one lost; most importantly, it is about the Vietnam veteran coming to the wall he might only stand on the asphalt and not have the nerve to approach the wall, but the fact he took that first step in the healing process is why we do this.
“You will help us do what we set out to do: we will not let those people be forgotten,” he stated.
While opening ceremonies are usually a time for fanfare and celebration, this event to mark the opening of the wall to the public for the Labor Day weekend was meant to be more solemn.
“This ceremony is not so much a celebration, as it is a memorial to those whose names are on this traveling wall and in Washington, D.C.,” said organizer Greg Smith.
During the hour-long ceremony, the American flag was prominent as the volunteer Freedom Riders each held up regulation-size flags, the regular City Park flag proudly flew at full staff and local businessman and pilot Mark Mondo flew a very large flag over the opening ceremonies, beginning as the crowd sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“Our flag is the most visible symbol of freedom the world has ever known,” Smith said.
Along with the American flag, a Parkersburg Fire Department ladder held up a jumbo POW/MIA flag.
“Vietnam was unlike any war before,” said Mayor Bob Newell. “It was fought in every dining room and living room, on every television and business in the country.
“It was fought by the children of the greatest generation that taught their children what patriotism and pride in your country is,” he said. “When they returned, those who fought in Vietnam were not given the welcome of their parents or those who have come after and this wall is a small way for us to make up for what they did not receive.
“As mayor, I am proud to have the opportunity to host this wall,” Newell added.
The ceremony included Marine Corps chaplain Bernie Lyons, Parkersburg City Councilman and U.S. Air Force veteran John Kelley, members of area Freedom Riders, the Marine Corps League color guard and the United States Air Force Honor Guard and Drill Team. The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard and Drill Team performed two programs: one during the ceremony in front of the baseball field and the second in front of the wall itself.
“It is a distinct honor for them to be allowed to perform in front of the hallowed ground of the wall,” Smith told the crowd.
Victor Smith with American Legion Post 389 in Beverly, Ohio, played several songs on the trumpet, including Taps and America the Beautiful.
The wall will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, through Monday, with an ecumenical worship service planned for 4 p.m. Sunday.
Sunday’s service will include chaplains from throughout the region officiating with music as part of the program.