KEY LARGO -- Before the official opening of “The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall” at the Key Largo Community Park, four boys goofing off in the area called “hallowed ground” came face-to-face with a 66-year-old Vietnam vet who walked with a cane.
The vet, Richard Ford, began telling the boys a little history about the wall and the significance of the more than 58,000 names that were on the black panels that stretched nearly the length of a football field.
The boys, aged 11 to 13, listened in awe. Then one of them asked: “Were you in the war?”
Ford, who drove an ammunitions truck for the U.S. Army in 1968, one of the deadliest years of the war, answered simply: “I was there, yes.”
The boy replied, “Ah. Thank you, sir,” and reached out his hand.
Ford became emotional: “Thank you for thanking.” His voice cracked and tears swelled in his eyes as he shook each of the boys hands. He then mustered three more words. “Thank you guys.”
Vietnam vet Carl Roy, who received two Purple Hearts, led a community effort to raise about $20,000 to bring the traveling replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall to Key Largo. “We hope people’s visits will be healing, educational and profoundly moving,” he said.
The wall will be open free to the public, 9 a.m.- 9 p.m., until Monday, when it will be taken down after the 6 p.m. closing ceremony. There also is a traveling museum of artifacts and photographs called “Through the Eyes,” Vietnam-era vehicles from the Marathon Marauders and a display by the Military Order of the Purple Heart of Floridians for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ford gave the kids a brief history of the war. But one thing he left out was how terribly most Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned from an unpopular war that sparked protests nationwide. He didn’t tell them how some soldiers were spit on, called baby killers and often suffered in silence, with limited help from the country they fought for.
It was the Wall — the V-shaped monument built next to the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington in 1982 — that began to heal the nation.
At first, it was controversial. Vietnam veteran David Dechant, who provided the opening remarks Friday, was on two task forces to build the original Wall. He recalled the huge uproar over the winner of the design contest being of Chinese descent, Yale senior Maya Ying Lin, and the battle to change the black marble to traditional white because “black was not honorable.”
But once the memorial was completed, it became beloved, with an estimated 4.5 million annual visitors.
Vietnam veteran Jon Devitt saw the need to bring the same healing power of the wall to people who could not visit the Nation’s Capital. In 1984, he created the first traveling memorial, a half-scale replica called “The Moving Wall.” Its overwhelming popularity spawned a second Moving Wall.
Four more replicas for outdoor display have followed. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which was founded by Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs and privately raised $8 million for the original Wall, created the half-size replica, “The Wall that Heals.”
The “American Veterans Traveling Tribute,” the largest replica at 80 percent scale, was made by a nonprofit Texas group. The three-fourths scale “Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall,” created by a funeral services company, has traveled around the country for the past 20 years and last month was installed at the National Infantry Museum in Fort Benning, Ga., for a five-year stint.
And in 2005, the Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard built a 3/5-scale replica, the wall that is in Key Largo. “It’s all about not forgetting the fallen,” said Greg Welsh, the wall’s manager.
The various traveling walls have stopped in more than 1,000 communities, as well as Guam and Saipan.
“I can’t say they are just as great, but they stir up the emotions, and the remembrances,” Dechant said. “You can see your face reflected over the names of relatives or people you knew, or in my case, people you served with.”
Roy was 18 when he went to Vietnam in 1966 as a member of the 4th Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, Charlie Company. A picture of him on patrol during a monsoon was published in the New York Daily News.
“I was a Kennedy kid and thought we should be there to protect these people,” Roy said.
He suffered a head trauma after a blast. But his war did not end until about 12 days later, when he was shot in the thigh. He said he felt blessed to come home alive. Three of his friends did not.
“I have a great passion for the wall,” Roy said. “I go there to visit my buddies.”
Staff Sgt. Ryan McCullough, who participated in the opening ceremony as a member of the U.S. Army stationed in Homestead, took a moment afterward to find the name of his cousin, John J. McCullough, who died before he was born.
“I’ve heard a lot of family stories about him,” McCullough said. “I’m trying to hold back the tears.”
Skip Bradeen, a longtime boat captain in the Keys who served in Vietnam in 1963, said he was lucky he got sent home as part of Operation Santa Claus before anyone he knew died.
But former Green Beret Jim Anson of Kendall, who led the Pledge of Allegiance at the wall, wasn’t so lucky. He rubbed the name of Walter H. Moon, one of the first to die in the war, in 1959.
Anson, who served from 1959 to 1964 in the first class of Special Forces and met President Kennedy, has never counted how many names are on the wall of people he knew. “It’s too emotional,” he said.
Anson, a radio operator, said that he still has nightmares and can sleep no longer than four hours at a time. “In the jungle you didn’t have alarm clocks and I had to send a radio transmission every four hours,” he said.
More than 500 schoolchildren are scheduled to come and see the wall. “To these kids, this is ancient history,” said Chris Rubino, who served in the Navy for 27 years and volunteered to help bring the wall to Key Largo. “Military history in schools is not as important as it used to be.”
Savannah Clark, a seventh-grader, said she thought the Vietnam War “happened in the 1920s.”
Lily Soca, 6, was trying to comprehend the magnitude of the memorial. “It’s about soldiers who died,” she said, midway through a valiant attempt to read the names, line by line, starting at the west end.
But she eventually stopped. “There are so many names,” she said. “I can’t read all of them.”
A half hour after their encounter with Ford, the three boys were discussing the day. They all agreed with the assessment by Jacob Webb, 13: “True heroes don’t come in Spandex like Captain America.”