An online photo project of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has completed its search for Tennessee's fallen Vietnam War veterans, including 88 from Hamilton County now accessible on the virtual Wall of Faces at www.vvmf.org.
The news is not as positive for the Education Center the VVMF had originally planned to build in Washington, D.C., to give the online images a physical home. The organization's board of directors announced in September that the VVMF was canceling plans to build the 25,000-square-foot center on the National Mall, ending a 17-year effort.
"We know many veterans and supporters are disappointed in this outcome," Chairman John Dibble said in a statement. "We also are disappointed that the early enthusiasm and support did not result in a completed building. Since the idea was developed in early 2001, the world is a very different place."
Among those supporters is VVMF volunteer Janna Hoehn, a Hawaii resident who is on a nationwide mission to find photos for all of the Vietnam War dead. When she began her search in Tennessee, she made her plea via newspaper coverage, including the Times Free Press in February 2018. At the time, the Wall of Faces lacked a photograph for 22 of Hamilton County's 88 casualties.
Hoehn requested help from families, friends, former classmates, anyone who could produce a photo of a deceased veteran. Among her "boots on the ground" was Harold Keisling of Cookeville, Tennessee.
"There were four or five us dedicated to working the Tennessee list," he says. "In most cases it was a joint effort. In all cases, it takes the efforts of many and the cooperation of the family. I had many more failures than successes, but it was important that these people be remembered. Being able to see a photo along with the name on the wall was important."
Keisling, 80, says he served in Vietnam and still feels an attachment to a lieutenant who was killed.
"I have visited the Wall and saw his name there," he says. "I left thinking is there more that can be done. Then I saw an article about Janna's work and I joined in."
A quick search of Hamilton County's Wall of Faces now shows an array of images in color, black-and-white and sepia tones. Some photos appear to be military issue of servicemen in uniform. Others are snapshots showing soldiers in battle fatigues. Some images are likely high school graduation photos. Still others appear to be copy-machine reproductions, perhaps from a newspaper obituary.
"We always hope to receive photos from families as they are the best quality," Hoehn says. "However, we don't always find family and have to rely on yearbook photos or obituary photos. Sometimes a comrade will have a photo, as well that was taken in Vietnam."
At last count, Hoehn says, she's "down to needing only 1,296 photos nationwide" out of 58,318 Vietnam War casualties the website commemorates.
"There just aren't words for the feeling of finding that very last photo," she says. "It is just a wonderful feeling knowing that we have been a part in making sure each of our fallen are remembered and honored."
She has now cast her sights on Michigan, where she's seeking 70 photos; Illinois, 34 photos; and Alabama, 39 photos.
The number from Alabama does not include any from DeKalb, Jackson and Cherokee counties. The six originally missing from those three counties in the northeastern corner of the state were included in the Times Free Press' coverage of Hoehn's search, along with several other counties in Northwest Georgia and Southeast Tennessee.
From that initial request of 53 names last year, she now lacks photos for just two Army veterans, both from North Georgia: Billie H. Smith from Rossville (1943-1966) and Nathaniel Knowles from Menlo (1942-1967).
"I am so grateful for each family member that came forward with photos [and] the librarians that were so helpful in obtaining obituaries and yearbook photos," she says.
What she remembers most about compiling the photos, she says, is that "the families were so grateful that their loved one was being honored."
Hoehn says she's saddened by the news of the Education Center's demise. Originally estimated to cost $40 million, the project grew to $130 million. The nonprofit had raised $45 million.
According to the Military Officers Association of America, about $23 million had been spent on initial project planning and awareness. Another $17 million in donations earmarked specifically for "hard construction" may be returned to donors. Remaining funds are expected to be allocated between current education programs, The Wall That Heals mobile exhibit and maintaining the existing Vietnam Veterans Memorial, commonly known as the Wall. Photos and artifacts that were collected for the Education Center may go to military museums.
"For over 10 years they have been trying to raise enough money and just have not been able to do so," Hoehn says. "It was a very sad day to hear this as I had done fundraising myself for the building fund. The plan is that the photos will accompany the healing wall that travels the U.S., and of course access to all the photos collected are on the Wall of Faces website."
Though Hoehn's statewide campaigns have raised awareness of the website, her involvement is not necessary to add photos. Each bio of a fallen hero on the Wall of Faces includes a link for submitting photos via upload.
Contact Lisa Denton at email@example.com or 423-757-6281.