In their words
Visiting Vietnam Wall
Building The Wall
NAPLES — They came to pay their respects Saturday morning to Vietnam War veterans who earned the Purple Heart, and then joined forces at night to stand vigil in a candlelight ceremony.
Minutes before the evening ceremony, those attending were locating the names of friends and family members, gently rubbing the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall, which is temporarily on display at Naples Memorial Gardens Cemetery in North Naples.
“Welcome home,” retired Army Spec. 4 Ron Melyan, 65, said to every veteran that passed by him.
Melyan, who lost more than 20 friends in Vietnam, has seen the wall in Washington, D.C., but felt compelled to travel from Punta Gorda to show his love for his brothers, he said with tears in his eyes.
“Freedom is not free,” Melyan said, adding that he hopes younger generations learn about the sacrifices men and women made.
After several speeches, about a dozen Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of Collier and Lee counties lit small, white candles near the wall. More than 250 Southwest Floridians gathered Saturday evening for the vigil.
Saturday morning, Bentley Village resident Shirley Wagner turned out to honor the son of friends from Illinois for the Purple Heart ceremony.
She sought to find his name on the wall and succeeded.
There it was: Robert C. Williams on Panel 8 East, she said.
“He was shot down. I knew him as a young man,” Wagner said.
Williams was reported missing in action for many years, and his remains were finally found, although she can’t recall when, Wagner said.
Wagner visited with his parents. She spoke with his mother.
“I said to her, ‘It must be good (to have) some closure,’” Wagner recalled. “She said, ‘No, Shirley. There isn’t. While he was missing, there was always hope.’”
Wagner was silent for a second, staring at the wall of 58,260 names.
“This is mind-boggling. I didn’t think it would affect me this way,” Wagner said.
Fellow Bentley residents Walter and Dorothy Bowls turned out to support friends.
“We have a lot of (retired) service people at Bentley Village,” Walter Bowls said.
Bentley Village resident Gen. Rock Brett survived service in World War II and the Korean War.
He was shot down over Vietnam.
“My backseater was killed on ejection,” Brett said. “His name was Myron Smith. He’s on panel 32.
“At least we provided his family with his remains,” Brett said.
Veterans from all wars stress the importance of tracking down every single MIA.
“Imagine a young wife with a couple of children,” Brett said. “Her husband goes MIA. ... She can’t move forward with her life. We’re working all over the world to find every MIA.”
A service was held Saturday morning to honor those who earned the Purple Heart, as Brett did. As Smith did. As Williams did.
Some veterans coaxed others into recognizing the nobility of giving one’s life for one’s country, even if you don’t agree with the U.S. being at war.
For those who experienced the national chaos in 1967, ‘68, ‘69, Saturday morning was vivid, not a 40-year-old memory.
And some are still angry -- because they weren’t honored then, and believe Americans aren’t honoring this generation of war veterans.
“I was close to being on this wall myself,” said Jay Jones, of Bonita Springs.
In 1967, the New Hampshire boy enlisted in the U.S. Marines and was shipped off to Vietnam.
“Most people have no idea what a combat veteran goes through,” he said Saturday. “We lived in holes in the ground. We had nothing to eat except C-rations. I went six months without being able to take a shower unless it rained.”
“But the hardest thing for me was having to close the eyes of a friend. That was in the DMZ,” Jones said, speaking of the demilitarized zone.
The wounds were so deep -- physically and psychologically -- that it took Jones 30 years to finally join a veterans association.
A taped message by Major Gen. Hal More talked of the national experience, the country’s state of mind in those years.
The nation was so divided over the war that “the country that sent us off to war was not there when we came back,” More said.
“Welcome home” was not a phrase commonly heard.
“We waited patiently for America to come to its senses,” he said.
It took a long time.
The Rev. Skip Torres turned out in his fatigues Saturday morning.
“Misguided people of this nation ... made vets the brunt of their anger,” Torres recalled, adding that Americans are doing it again, speaking of current troops in the Middle East.
Likening 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, Torres said Pearl Harbor “welded our county together,” but now Americans are “resting while another enemy has prepared a war plan and has already struck us at home.”
“We have another Pearl Harbor, but we are not talking about it enough. This war is a worldwide war. If we don’t face it today, tomorrow may be too late,” Torres said.
The Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Collier Foundation and Collier County Veterans Council organized getting the wall to Naples.
Opening ceremonies were held Friday. The wall is open for public viewing until Sunday night.