There were speeches made Thursday evening in Fort Mill to mark the opening of the traveling Vietnam memorial wall that will be on display through Sunday at Veterans Park at the foot of Main Street.
Words caromed around the hundreds of people packed into the park. Powerful words from Vietnam War Army hero Frank Walker of Rock Hill, who saved countless men as a helicopter pilot. Walker has dozens of medals but said quietly before he made his speech that the heroes are those on that wall.
“We can’t thank them, but we can remember them,” Walker said of those 58,300 who died in Vietnam, including 36 from York County of which 11 were from Fort Mill.
All 11 of those names were read, and people stood with hands over their hearts and cried for each of them. Some on hand were mothers and siblings of the dead. Some of the troops from Fort Mill who were killed in action played as children in this little park where the wall with their names on it stands this week. All because of death in a war on the other side of the world.
It is the wall, the traveling monument half the size of the original memorial in Washington, D.C., that spoke loudest of all. The wall without words spoke to the veterans, the families, who searched and found the names of those they loved.
Many of the veterans of Vietnam, now in their 60s and 70s, walked slowly toward the wall. Some used canes. A few needed wheelchairs.
Richard Kleedorfer, 66, of Fort Mill, one of those in a wheelchair, searched for the name James R. Morris. The name was found. Kleedorfer, in Vietnam with Morris in 1968, spoke softly.
“I came back and he did not,” Kleedorfer said. “I knew him. He was from New Jersey. I remember it like it was yesterday, how he told us he told his girl, ‘I’m not ever coming back to you.’ And he didn’t.”
Morris died at age 22 on Jan. 31, 1968.
Pushing Kleedorfer’s wheelchair was a guy from Lancaster named Wilbert Crockett. At age 70, Crockett was in Vietnam in 1966. Crockett pushed the chair, and he was crying.
“Wayne Evitt,” said Crockett.
A worker with the traveling wall found the name Wayne Evitt on the wall for Crockett. The big man bent over to see the name for the soldier who died June 20, 1966.
“I was there when he died,” Crockett said. “I was right there. We had to leave him until the next day. And I couldn’t do a thing about it.”
Crockett stood there in that grassy park and cried for his friend Evitt from Georgia, who died next to him in the jungles of Vietnam.
That is what this traveling wall is all about. The wall is nicknamed “The Wall That Heals,” because so many veterans get a chance to see it as it travels around the country, and deal with grief that is unknowable for all except those who have seen buddies die next to them on the battlefield.
A Vietnam veteran named Jerry Chasteen, all by himself, looked at so many panels of the 250-foot-long wall.
“18,” said Chasteen.
He was asked if he was looking for panel 18, as the wall is made up of dozens of panels.
“No – 18 brave men I knew are on this wall who died there,” said Chasteen. “I come here for all of them.”
Friday’s ceremony paid tribute to all the names on that wall, and all the troops who served in Vietnam. And not all were American troops.
Standing off to the side of the ceremony stood a man maybe 5 feet tall. He had come from his convenience store around the corner, where he works long days six and seven days a week. His name is Bang Bui.
“Vietnam is my country I came from,” Bui said, quietly.
Bui served years in the South Vietnamese Army during the same war as these American troops. He knew countless people who died in that war, too. American troops. Vietnamese troops. His own family.
The ceremony, and the wall in Fort Mill where Bang Bui now lives and works in America, is for him, too.
As the ceremony wound down, each of the 11 names of the Fort Mill boys who died in Vietnam were read. The whole crowd, hundreds, maybe even a thousand strong it was so big, stood in silence. The names of the locals, and the 58,000-plus more on the wall, honored by the people who loved them then and love them still.