Active-duty service members in dress uniforms joined aging veterans in ballcaps and bomber jackets in welcoming a traveling piece of American history to Swan Lake on Friday.
The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall arrived in Sumter along with a welcoming procession on Wednesday and was installed at its temporary location behind the Swan Lake Visitors Center on Thursday, but Friday marked the formal opening ceremony for the Wall’s display.
Local and state politicians spoke at the dedication ceremony along with officers from Shaw Air Force Base and ordinary Vietnam veterans.
Greg Welsh, the manager of the Traveling Wall, set the tone for the night with his opening address.
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“I could tell you 58,000 Americans who died are on that Wall,” Welsh said. “But it’s really about the young boy or girl who get to visit an uncle or grandfather they’ve only heard about at family events, or the Gold Star mother or father who comes to spend time with their son, or the Vietnam vet who might only make it to the curb, but takes the first step in the healing process.”
Maj. Gen. Lawrence Wells, commander of the Ninth Air Force at Shaw, recited some of the salient facts about the monument and its doppelganger in Washington; the first name on the Wall is that of an Air Force technical sergeant killed in 1956. That same man’s son was killed in action in 1965, making them one of three father-son combinations on the Wall. Twelve chaplains died in Vietnam, and eight women. The eldest casualty was 63 years old, the youngest a Marine of just 15.
Speaker and Vietnam veteran Douglas Wilson said the Wall was meant to honor those who came “from every corner of the heartland” to go to “a place most of us couldn’t find on a map.” He talked about flying bombing runs over Hanoi where “B-52s plummeted from the sky all around us.”
In addition to the healing experience the Wall offers veterans and their families, Wilson said the monument helps to heal the social divisions the controversial war opened on the home front.
“Never were American soldiers so demeaned, shunned and vilified as those who came back from Vietnam,” he said. “Part of the reason this Wall exists is to make sure that never happens again.”
Lefford Fate, a retired Air Force sergeant who helped organize the Wall’s visit, spoke about the importance it holds for someone like himself, who lost a brother to the Vietnam War.
“My parents never could afford to go and see their son on the Wall,” he said, “They would be proud all of you can come to see it.”
The Wall is one display at Swan Lake through Memorial Day.