CLEVELAND - A U.S. military veteran of the war in Vietnam stood with tears in his eyes in front of a replica of the Vietnam Memorial and peered at the panels of the nearly 59,000 names of the American military service members who did not come home. The grey hair that peeked from beneath the bill of the veteran's cap announced his maturity. However, he said his mind raced back over the years to the time when he was a young serviceman in the war in Vietnam.
The traveling Vietnam Memorial is in Cleveland as part of Marine Week, where the U.S., Marines show manpower and military machinery. Each year, it is a week-long event. This year, Cleveland plays host.
With Marine aircraft flying into and out of Burke Lakefront Airport, the roar of aviation blends with the soft voices of those who view the memorial, noting the names of the service members of all branches who died in the war in Vietnam that began in the mid-1960s and continued for about 10 years.
"This is a place for somebody to grieve and show expression," said Bob Hayes, a veteran of the war in Vietnam. His voice trailed off as he spoke, looking at the names on the memorial. He said when he returned from duty in Vietnam, there was no widespread show of support for the troops which fought the war there.
"So I decided to come down here and spend the whole day here and talk with other veterans."
As visitors to the traveling memorial walk quietly along the length of it, more than 60 yards, Marines in dress blue uniforms march slowly back and forth as guards. Each shoulders a M14 weapon. At the end of the red carpet lining the Marines' walkway, each brings his weapon to port arms, then side arms, as he turns about-face, to again shoulder his weapon for a march in the opposite direction. The names on the wall are not alone. During Marine Week in Cleveland, there is always a Marine standing guard, honoring the fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines who died in Vietnam.
Bill Taylor, commandant of a group called the Young Marines of Cleveland, a military interest group, said he knew 14 men whose names are on the wall. As he walked along the memorial, he pointed to the names he knew, pausing at each name, touching it with his finger.
Also at the memorial was Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, a Vietnam veteran. Recalling his days in the Army, Jackson reflected on his time and on the meaning of the memorial.
"Any time you are part of something, you feel and you remember things because of it." With no fanfare, the mayor, who played a vital role in inviting the Marines to Cleveland for a special week of exhibits, walks almost unnoticed among the crowd. He, too, pays respects to the fallen members of the U.S. military.
In the afternoon sunshine, cameras are pulled from pockets and purses as photographs are snapped of names. Visitors speak in almost hushed tones. Military aircraft, bound for neighboring Burke Lakefront Airport roared overhead as they approached the runway. Children are held in the arms of their grandfathers, who explained to them the significance of the memorial. Some veterans of the war, whose hair had turned to grey, recount their days when they were young men and found themselves in battle in the far-away place called Vietnam.
On panel 61 West, Line 19, is the name of a soldier from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The name Randall L. Williams peers back at the author of this story. He was a close friend who died at the age of 21. Randy, as he was called by members of his unit, had been scheduled to be released from the Army. He had only 57 days to go in Vietnam and he would have gone home to Sioux Falls to wed his fiancée, who was waiting for his honorable release from active duty.
Instead, during a battle one afternoon in 1968, Randy was fatally wounded by mortar fire. He died on a hillside. His name is joined by those of nearly 59,000 who also died in that war. The name Randall L. Williams, peers back at those who come to honor the memory of those who gave their last full measures of devotion to their nation.
Each name inscribed on the traveling memorial, a replica of the permanent one in Washington is tied to a story. Each member of the U.S. military who died in the war has a story to tell. Many who visit the memorial in Cleveland come to hear the stories only the Vietnam Memorial can tell.