Wamego residents were out in force to honor veterans and remember those who died in the line of duty at the opening ceremony of “The Wall That Heals” that took place in Wamego City Park on Thursday morning.
The Wall That Heals is a travelling three-quarter scale replica of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C. and bears the names of all 58 thousand U.S. servicemen who lost their lives during the war. Wamego is the only stop the wall will be making in Kansas this year. The Wamego Chamber of Commerce and the local branch of Caterpillar Work Tools teamed up to bring the memorial to their city.
The ceremony started with the presentation of colors by the Fort Riley Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard and a prayer by Chaplain Bill Gasser.
“They served with honor and distinction in the central highlands, in the Ia Drang valley, in the Mekong Delta, in the I Corps area, at Khe Sanh, at Saigon, at Huế City and so many other places,” Gasser said. “Those names are mostly forgotten in our rapidly changing world, but today we pause to remember them.”
The first speaker was Staff Sgt. Chris Shearer, Caterpillar team lead for the U.S. Army Reserves. He said the city went through a selection process to make Wamego one of the stops for the wall.
“We had a lot of meetings and talked with the people in the community to see what days did we want it here,” he said. “Actually, this is the main day that we did want it here — on Flag Day and the army’s birthday.”
Shearer said the day was to pay respect to not only those who gave their lives, but to all veterans who served and continue to serve.
“You all performed with valor and honor that veterans of war still emulate today and you are forever among the ranks of those Americans in every generation that we hold as true patriots,” said Shearer.
A big topic at the ceremony was healing from the physical and mental aftermath of the Vietnam War. Shearer said the opportunity to commemorate the fallen can be a positive step in the process.
“It’s been said that The Wall That Heals brings forth healing,” Shearer said. “I don’t know if complete healing will ever come, but it will bring us one step closer at every place this shows up, and [for]everybody that comes out.”
Col. Roger Donlon of Leavenworth also spoke about how community gatherings like the ceremony can help with lasting emotions and effects from combat.
“We mentioned time heals all wounds — well, I have to disagree with that,” Col. Donlon said. “Time heals all wounds to a measure. There are certain wounds that never get fully healed, and occasions like this are the best medicine for those type of wounds.”
Col. Donlon and his wife, Norma, were both at the opening ceremony of the wall. Donlon served in the U.S. Army for 32 years and was the first recipient of the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. He said the hardest part of serving was receiving his first reports of casualties.
“Casualties of war go far beyond the battlefield,” Col. Donlon said. “Family bears the casualties.”
This was all too understood by his wife Norma, who had been widowed prior to marrying Roger when her first husband died in Vietnam. She talked about the importance of teaching youths about this part of the nation’s history.
“It’s so important to bring your children and grandchildren to events like this to remember the fallen, to honor all our veterans, and most importantly to teach the next generation that freedom isn’t free and the sacrifice that it requires to keep this country so that we have our liberty,” Norma said.
Caterpillar Facility Manager Paul Olsen agreed, saying the outing is a great educational opportunity.
“It’s an unparalleled opportunity, not only for us to remember those who have served our country but to ensure that residents of all ages can learn more about the Vietnam War and connect with one another on a piece of American history that continues to impact us all,” Olsen said.
Wamego City Manager Merl Page thanked the efforts of groups like Caterpillar to bring the wall to the city. He said he hopes all of Wamego will take the opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices of the fallen servicemen.
“I saw recently a quote that rings true today: All gave some, some gave all,” said Page. “Over the next few days I hope everyone has a chance to view, find and remember the names of fallen friends, family members and other men and women that many of you had the privilege of serving [with]during your military career.”
Kansas State Representative Ron Highland spoke briefly about his time in the war and remembered being spit on by U.S. citizens while in uniform during the war. He also expressed hope that the opportunity to see the memorial will help him move past some of his trauma as well.
“I told some friends that I was going to pull out my old 201 files and search the names of all the folks that I served with, but I’m still not able to do that,” said Highland. “This may be the beginning of that healing.”
Highland said he still questions why he survived when so many did not to this day. As a result, he made a commitment.
“I made a promise to myself and those whose names are engraved on this wall and those still missing: that I would live my life to the best of my ability,” Highland said.
Kansas Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann said all U.S. citizens have a similar obligation to the fallen soldiers of Vietnam and all wars.
“We in this country owe a great debt of gratitude to those who serve so that we all can live free,” Mann said. “We can start to pay that debt by remembering what they did and what they stood for and by living our lives in such a way as to prove ourselves worthy of the freedoms they gave their lives to defend.”
He went on to recount a quote from English author G.K. Chesterton saying true soldiers are not motivated by hate, but by love.
“The soldiers who fought in service to their country did so because they loved what was behind them — their families, homes, neighbors, and their freedoms,” said Mann.
The ceremony closed off with a ceremonial role call for four Wamego residents who died in the service of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The Wall That Heals will be open to the public 24 hours a day and available for viewing through Sunday, June 17. Taps will be played daily at 9 p.m. and the closing ceremony will be at 1 p.m. Visitors can take name rubbings of individual service member’s names on it.
More information on the memorial can be found at www.TheWallThatHeals.org.
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