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.
Much of the tribute remains faceless. More than half of the 58,282 names on the wall also have a photo or biography on the virtual site. The hope is that every U.S. forces member who served is eventually remembered, that no story is left behind.
But the war ended more than 38 years ago and memories are slipping away .
“This is urgent in that we want to get the photos before it’s too late, before they are lost to history,” said Scruggs, the wounded and decorated Vietnam veteran who led the effort to build the memorial. “Just about every day we get a photograph... Now a lot are coming from siblings as their parents are in theirs 80s and 90s. Sometimes we get good candid photos from Vietnam where buddies took the photos and brought them back when they returned.’’
In 2003, President George W. Bush signed legislation authorizing the VVMF to build an underground educational facility near The Wall as a way of helping future generations understand and appreciate the legacy of those who served. The center, expected to cost about $95 million, will feature pictures and stories of those who were lost as well as some of the more than 150,000 items left at the memorial.
The material posted online comes mostly from family, friends, classmates and surviving members of military units. Beyond the photos, the remembrances offer the most vivid, personal details that puts the names on the wall into context.
Among the 1,138 fallen from Florida who remain faceless in the archive, there are 144 from Miami-Dade, 74 from Broward and 48 from Palm Beach County, serving in every branch of the military.
Others are remembered in photos and recollections, frozen in time.
For Miami’s Robert Jameson Barton, 23, killed in an Army helicopter airplane crash on Oct. 18, 1971, his Aunt Wanda submitted to the website pictures of him as a young boy and as an adult standing next to an aircraft. His friend David Henson wrote: “I was Jamie’s skydiving instructor. We had a lot of fun at [the University of Florida] and other drop zones in Florida. When he [was] about to ship out to Vietnam, he stopped by and wanted to make a jump with me… I am sure that was the last sky dive he ever made. We had a great time.’’
Henson named his first son after Robert.
In 1966, John T. Weaver and Richard Alfred Wardrobe, of Fort Lauderdale, became best friends, attending the Miami Military Academy together. Just three months after his 18th birthday in June, 1967, Wardrobe, a Marine PFC, died in the Quang Tri province.
“He was bright, caring and impatient. We helped each other a lot. After my sophomore year, I moved on to another school…I last saw him when we hugged and said goodbye in June of 1966,” Weaver wrote in a 2004 remembrance. “Now, 37 years later, I still think of him, still can see his face, still can feel his impatience, and I still miss him.”
A picture of Wardrobe in his uniform was submitted by an anonymous group of family and friends.
But for other names, there are no photos, no personal remembrances and the barest of details. For Lee E. Rosenwasser, there is this: Army SP4 from North Miami Beach who died on January 12, 1966, about two weeks before his 19th birthday. And for Earl K. Tynes, the memorial says only that he was 27, an Army SPC4, who died on May 29, 1966 and is buried at Lauderdale Memorial Park in Fort Lauderdale.
Among the early casualties from Florida — the first from what was then called Dade County — was 2nd Lt. Louis Carricarte, a pilot whose helicopter was shot down on Dec. 12, 1963. Fellow soldiers recovered his body, which arrived in Miami on Christmas Day. He was buried at Woodlawn Park North Cemetery in Miami. Because he was the tragic first, a crowd gathered along the streets to pay respects, men’s hats tipped as the processional passed. Mike Carricarte still vividly remembers his big brother.
“Louie was my best friend, ’’ said Mike Carricarte, of South Miami, whose brother, Charlie Carricarte submitted photos to the virtual wall. “We had so many plans. He was supposed to come back so we could open a business together. To honor him, I named all of my seven children after him, using Louis or Louise in their names.’’
In the months before his death, the older brother, then 22, visited the younger at U.S. Army Ranger School at Eglin Air Force Base. They had lunch together — hot dogs and beans, Mike remembers — and Louis handed Mike a pair of jungle boots. “He said he was shipping off in a week and wanted me to have the boots,’’ said Carricarte. “I still remember telling him during the visit that I wished I could have gone to Vietnam for him and not to let anything happen to him while overseas. It was the last time I saw him alive.”
He still has the boots.