We’d like to thank the 600-plus members of the Band of Brothers and the Town of Lady Lake for hosting The Traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall at the Rolling Acres Sports Complex.
If you haven’t been out to see this special piece of history, let us be the first to encourage you to do so. The exhibit, a 3/5-scale replica of the Wall in Washington, D.C., contains the names of every man and woman – more than 58,000 – who died while serving their country in the Vietnam War.
It’s an amazing tribute to these fine military members who made the ultimate sacrifice. And it’s the kind of thing we believe every American should see and appreciate, as it brings people together and keeps alive the stories of those who were so young and innocent as they valiantly served their country thousands of miles away from home.
“The town respects and is thankful for all who served, especially for those that made the ultimate sacrifice so that we all may enjoy the freedoms that we have,” Lady Lake Mayor Jim Richards wrote in a letter that was published in the Memorial Wall program booklet.
Richards, who was in the military during the Vietnam War-era, added that he’s thrilled Americans have largely come to appreciate those who served in Southeast Asia.
“It was a rough time with high political turmoil that, in many cases, disrespected those that served who did not create the situation of war, but were only fighting to end it,” he wrote.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Richard A. Hack also offered a message in the program booklet about those who served.
“We must never forget their service, their fidelity and their allegiance to a cause greater than themselves,” he wrote. “Remember those who have served and those who have fallen and forever keep their memories alive in your hearts.”
That was certainly the case Friday for Patti Brattain, of Louisville, Ky., as she made an etching of Richard B. Smith’s name on a piece of paper. Brattain never met Smith, but she shares a special bond with him and made it a point to see the Wall while in town visiting her parents.
“I sent away for a POW bracelet in the eighth-grade and they sent me Richard D. Smith,” she said. “I wore it for 32 years until it broke.”
As Brattain gently held the paper with Smith’s name on it, she recalled writing a letter to his family that had to be sent through the Air Force.
“I wanted to send them half of the bracelet,” she said. “But I didn’t hear back from them so I still have the whole bracelet.”
Another story that was told at the Wall Friday was that of Villager William W. Shawn, who did two tours in Vietnam as an Army helicopter pilot and spent a total of 36 years in uniform serving his country. The retired lieutenant colonel was gentle and thoughtful as he recalled his days in Vietnam and the friends he lost there. And it didn’t long to figure out that he’s a true patriot who takes his military service quite seriously.
“Vietnam brings back a lot of emotions,” the Village of Pine Ridge resident said quietly. “Even though I wasn’t on the ground with the soldiers that were there, I saw a lot and I worked with them with my aircraft. It’s just a shame that they didn’t give the Army the mission and say, ‘Go get it done.’ Politics gets involved and that messes things up sometimes.”
Shawn said he knew several helicopter pilots who were killed during the war. But he made it a point to search out the name of a friend and former flight school colleague – Capt. Charles “Chuck” Abel, of Hopkinsville, Ky., who was killed on Sept. 13, 1966, when he was hit in the chest by a .50-caliber round while flying a Huey helicopter.
“He was such a strong Christian, very humble and very quiet-spoken,” Shawn said softly, standing just a few feet from the panel containing Abel’s name. “Nobody should have to die like that. Chuck could have been such a contributor to society when he came back home.”
Those visiting the Wall and sharing stories also had the opportunity to see a restored Vietnam War-era AH-1G Cobra gunship that flew in for the event. Like the Wall, the gunship brought out even more stories as gray-haired veterans suddenly had an extra pep in their step as they huddled around the sleek, flat-black helicopter and talked about days gone by.
“It’s a beautiful aircraft,” Shawn said, his mind drifting back to 1967 when he served in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division and again in 1970 with the 34th Group, 610th GS Maintenance Company. “I haven’t seen one up close like this that’s flyable in probably 30-some years,” added the 78-year-old, who is building a replica of a Cobra gunship on his golf cart and hopes to have it ready for the upcoming Villages Christmas parade.
Before he headed home for the day, and after talking with the pilot and owner of the Cobra gunship, New Smyrna Beach’s Roger Renzulli, Shawn shared his thoughts on why he made it back and others didn’t, adding that he was “shot up” twice but never crashed a helicopter.
“By the grace of God I’m standing here talking to you all right now, because I shouldn’t be here,” he said.
But like many of the men and women who came out to swap stories as much as they did to see the Wall and the Cobra gunship, Shawn started each day in Vietnam with a prayer: “Lord, help me to do what I’ve been trained to do. If it gets beyond my control, it’s in your hands.”
As we said earlier, we salute the Band of Brothers – one of the finest groups of veterans you’ll ever encounter – and the Town of Lady Lake for hosting a memorial that we believe every American should see. Like many families, we have relatives who served in Vietnam. And we appreciate the fact that so many people came together and worked so hard to bring the Traveling Memorial Wall here so that those who can’t make it to Washington, D.C., can experience it and understand the magnitude of the loss this country suffered in the name of protecting the freedoms we all hold so dearly.