Jim Reece of Wilmington wants to put the faces of people who died in the Vietnam war in a place where relatives and the world at large can see, and perhaps remember them.
That place would be in an addition to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Reece and people working with him are looking for photographs of service members with North Carolina connections who died as a result of injuries suffered in the Vietnam war.
There have been more than 1,820 military deaths of people who were from North Carolina, based here or buried in the state. Reece, his brother Tom, and their friend Rosa King in Rowan County have gathered photographs for all but 174.
Nine of the remaining ones are from Mecklenburg County, and the Reeces hope someone who knew the men or their families can rummage through old photo collections and come up with a way to help others remember them.
The photos would be posted on websites where people go to read or write about fallen soldiers and conduct genealogy research. They would also be included in a project at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington designed to honor every person who died as a result of the war.
‘The Wall of Faces’
The best-known feature of the memorial, the black granite wall engraved with the names of 58,286 dead, is powerful in its simplicity and its mass. It conveys to visitors the sheer magnitude of American casualties in Vietnam, and serves as a touchstone for those who lost friends or family in the conflict and want to run their fingers over the names.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which built the monument, is raising money to add a new feature nearby – an underground structure that would include a two-story projection screen. Each service member’s photo would be looped on the screen on their birthday.
The building also will be a display area for some of the more than 400,000 items that have been left in tribute at the base of the wall since it opened.
The group is still raising the $100 million for what will be called the Education Center, which it hopes to build in 2015 and open the next year. In the meantime, it has created a website with a searchable database of each service member and is posting the photos for The Wall of Faces as they come in.
“We can get military pictures,” said Tim Tetz, director of outreach for the Memorial Fund. “But we all look alike in those: starry eyes and buzz cuts and like we didn’t know what was going to be thrown at us next.”
Seeing soldiers in another light
What organizers are hoping to gather through the work of people such as the Reeces and others across the country, Tetz said, are civilian-life images that will help visitors identify with those who fought a war that many today know little about.
“Four million people a year visit the wall,” Tetz said. “And 40 percent of them weren’t alive in 1982 when it was dedicated. More than half weren’t alive when the war was going on.
“We’ve got all these people who look at that black granite and see the names, and they say, ‘How does this really impact me?’”
Then, Tetz said, they’ll go to the education center and see the picture of the captain on his wedding day, the sergeant at a family picnic.
“That picture tells a different story than the one in his (uniform) on the first day of training. It will drive home that that’s who served and sacrificed in the war.”
At last count, Tetz said, the Memorial Fund had photos for about 32,000 of the 58,286 service members. The group hopes to have all the photos when the Education Center opens.
So far, the only state where all the soldiers’ photos have been gathered is New Mexico, with a far smaller number of veterans, Tetz said.
Jim Reece wants North Carolina to be next.
A 40-year military veteran who served during the Vietnam era but never went to the country, Reece, 63, started looking for information about veterans when he and Tom realized that several former classmates from their high school in Wilmington had died in the war.
Seeking every single one
They researched those soldiers, including getting photographs of graves where possible, then decided to do the same for all the ones from New Hanover County. From there they branched out to neighboring Pender County and finally decided to collect information on every North Carolina-linked soldier who died from serving in Vietnam.
While Tom specializes in computer and records searches, Jim hunts through websites where relatives and friends write memorials to fallen troops, and he sends emails or tries to call the authors.
If he can find them, he can usually get a photo. But some family members are still angry about their loss, Reece said, and they won’t talk to him. Sometimes, he said, they will talk to King instead, but if not, he and his brother will try other avenues for gathering photos and information. They scour high school and college year books and dig through databases.
In a handful of cases, the Reeces have helped families get grave markers for soldiers whose burial sites had never gotten them, by putting the family in touch with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which covers the cost.
Their research also has led to several family reunions. In some cases, the Reeces found the children of fallen soldiers and connected them with relatives they had never met.
Many family members have been grateful for the effort to make sure their loved ones are memorialized in a photo, Reece said:
“They’re just touched that somebody still cares.”