They met on Christmas Day all those many years ago. Robert Szponder, 17, was the handsome guy with the denim blue eyes. He rode a black motorcycle and was just a few years away from the Army and war and death. Darlene Bernard was turning 15, just one semester into her freshman year of high school.
They sat across from each other in her Miami Shores living room, staring and flirting until the distance of strangers had melted. The holiday visitor became her boyfriend for almost three years, endless afternoons on the beach holding hands, and talks about a future until he was gone in the summer of 1968, some 10,000 miles away, a soldier drafted in the Vietnam War. That chapter would end two years later with Szponder’s body returned to South Florida as a war casualty, shot in the heart by a sniper in the Binh Dinh province in 1970. Robert Allan Szponder was 21.
Four decades later, with a new Vietnam War education center planned, the urgent call came for photos of the more than 58,000 Americans who died or remain missing — service men and women who never had the chance to become veterans — and Bernard went to her stash of memories, submitting photos and writing about the man she loved, her small contribution to a national campaign to humanize the wreckage of the war.
The names of the lost have already been etched in black granite on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., known simply as The Wall. But now with photos, stories from the trenches and the tiniest details, dead and missing members of the armed forces who served can be fully remembered.
“Bobby was the love of my life,” said Bernard, 62, now living in Pompano Beach. “I want people to know that Bobby was a good person. He had a great personality and sense of humor. He wanted to do the right thing, and was serious about serving the country.”
With 26,551 names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall still without faces or back stories to honor them — 1,138 from Florida alone — memorial leaders are renewing an effort to collect more photos and remembrances. The call for contribution encourages friends and families to send their photos to personalize the names on the memorial wall on the National Mall. What is collected is added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s virtual Wall of Faces (www.vvmf.org), an online site honoring the war dead and missing, and will become part of an interactive feature in the new Education Center at The Wall, due to open in 2014.
“The pictures are integral to the center and the visitor experience. They bring the person to life by putting a face to a name,” said Jan C. Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. “The names alone are powerful, but when you look at a picture, it does something different to you emotionally. It’s also chilling to see a name and the place where a photo should be is empty.’’
The Wall, dedicated in 1982, was built as a symbol of healing, a way of distinguishing the people who served in the military from the unpopular U.S. policy carried out in Vietnam. It attracts about 4.5 million visitors annually who can see familiar names and appreciate the magnitude of the loss.
The memorial stretches across two walls, each composed of 72 separate inscribed panels. Szponder’s name is inscribed on panel 8W, row 67.