published Saturday, November 10th, 2012

Vietnam veterans carry memories to Wall (with video)

Six Chapter 203 Vietnam Veterans of America walk in Soddy-Daisy and talk about their trip to to visit the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. From left are Robert "Waterdog" Bunch, Charlie Hobbs, Vance Elliott, Larry Johnson, Cecil Day and Buford Dennis.
Six Chapter 203 Vietnam Veterans of America walk in Soddy-Daisy and talk about their trip to to visit the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. From left are Robert "Waterdog" Bunch, Charlie Hobbs, Vance Elliott, Larry Johnson, Cecil Day and Buford Dennis.
Photo by Tim Barber.
Local Vietnam veterans traveling to Washington, D.C.
A group of local Vietnam veterans will travel to Washington, D.C. to see the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial during Veterans Day weekend.

VETERANS DAY EVENTS

Today:

* What: Dalton (Ga.) Veterans Day Parade

* When: 10 a.m. to noon

* Where: Begins at the corner of Thornton Avenue and Waugh Street, ends at Harmon Field, traveling along Hamilton Avenue

* What: Veterans Day Parade in Trenton, Ga.

* Who: American Legion Post 106

* When: 11 a.m.

* Where: Beginning at Moore's Funeral Home, 11910 S. Main St., Trenton

* What: Salute to Veterans Barbecue and Dance

* When 12:30-3 p.m.

* Where: Creekside at Shallowford, 7511 Shallowford Road, Chattanooga

Sunday

* What: Veterans Day Observance

* When: 2 p.m.

* Where: Chattanooga National Cemetery Pavilion, 1200 Bailey Ave.

* What: Dade County Veterans Day Ceremony

* When: 2:30 p.m.

* Where: Veterans Park in Trenton, Ga., near the town square

* What: Veterans Day 5k walk

* When: 2:30 p.m.

* Where: University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, McKenzie Arena, 720 East Fourth St.

* What: Veterans Day Community Concert by the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera

* When: 3:30 p.m.

* Where: Memorial Auditorium, 399 McCallie Ave.

* Cost: Free

* What: Meigs County Historical Society Veterans Tribute

* When: 2-5 p.m.

* Where: Meigs County Historical Museum, 200 Smith Ave., Decatur, Tenn.

Monday

* What: Cleveland and Bradley County Veterans Day Observance

* When: 11 a.m.

* Where: Bradley County Courthouse, 155 Ocoee St., Cleveland, Tenn.

FAST FACTS

• In 1979, Vietnam War veteran Jan. C Scruggs began the push to build a memorial to those lost in the war. He sought a "tangible symbol of recognition from the American people."

• More than $8 million was raised in private donations from more than 275,000 Americans to fund the project.

• Congress dedicated three acres in Constitution Gardens near the Lincoln Memorial for the memorial site in 1980. One year later 1,421 design entries were submitted.

• The wall opened to the public on Nov. 13, 1982.

• With the last group of names added in 2010, there are 58,272 names on the black granite walls.

• Both the East Wall and West wall are 246 feet long, composed of 70 panels, 40 inches wide.

• Many have left offerings such as dog tags, rank insignia and combat boots to their fallen friends. In 1984, the National Park Service began collecting the items. More than 150,000 items are stored at the Museum Resource Center in Maryland. Some have been placed on display at the National Museum of American History.

Source: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

On Sunday, Larry Johnson will face a black granite wall he's avoided for three decades, one holding ghosts from his youth.

Among the thousands of names, he'll search for seven he lost and rub the letters with his fingers as scenes both joyous and solemn flood his mind.

It's a trip he has tried to make on three occasions but backed out each time.

"They say it'll kind of put things to rest if you go," he said. "It may be tough when I get to the wall, but I still think it's going to be a good thing."

Boarding a bus Friday, Johnson, 64, joined a group of more than 70 local Vietnam War veterans who headed to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., also called "The Wall," for the memorial's 30th anniversary on Veterans Day.

Charlie Hobbs and his wife, Sharon, have organized more than a dozen trips to the wall. Hobbs, 64, an ardent member of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 203, said visits to the wall are a kind of therapy for his fellow veterans.

"It's a healing wall," Hobbs said.

Cecil Day, 67, knows how Johnson and other first-timers feels. He avoided the journey for many years, and he didn't decide to go until he joined the Chapter 203 and heard from fellow veterans about their trips.

"In the back of my mind I was wanting to go, needing to go," he said.

Buford Dennis, 62, prodded Johnson for years about joining the local Vietnam veterans group. Now he'll be visiting the memorial for the first time, too.

"It's been in my mind to go; I don't know how I can handle it," Dennis said. "I'm kind of scared to go. I'm afraid I won't hold my composure."

Dennis and Johnson didn't serve together, but they share a bond from the type of unit they fought in as U.S. Marines in the war. Each experienced some of the more intense fighting as members of Combined Action Platoons, which worked in 10-man teams training two dozen Vietnamese fighters. The isolated units fought deep in enemy territory, laying ambushes and walking terrifying night patrols.

A few years after he returned home and married, Dennis heard his mother tell his wife the change she witnessed in him.

"She said I was a kind-hearted boy, and when I came back I was a man she didn't recognize," Dennis recalled.

Like others of their generation, the men avoided veterans groups for years. Many Vietnam War veterans say they were spurned by the World War II veterans who made up most of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War posts in local communities.

"Legally [veterans organizations] couldn't hold us out, but you just don't want to go to a place that don't make you feel welcome," Day said.

Two Korean War veterans also went on the trip this weekend. That war's monument is within sight of the Wall.

Some Korean War vets faced a similar cold shoulder as much of the war-weary public and preceding World War II veterans looked past the conflict as many others would following Vietnam.

The quibbling over Korea and Vietnam as "police actions" or conflicts is wasted talk, the local veterans insist.

"I think any time there's American blood shed, it's a war in my book," Day said.

Dennis credits the wall with helping many Americans think more deeply about those who were lost in the war and look beyond the hurtful treatment they received when returning home.

"People who've seen it, I believe it's changed their mind and they've seen what we sacrificed," Dennis said.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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