After years of effort, local veterans groups have won the return to Payson in June of an 8-foot-tall, 370-foot-long replica of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, which could draw 15,000 to 20,000 people.
The Payson Vietnam Tribute Wall Committee hopes to win a $9,000 grant from the Town of Payson on Thursday, which, combined with other donations already raised, will underwrite the cost of the traveling exhibit.
The black blocks of aluminum will be about 80 percent the size of the original Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., but will have in raised lettering all of the 58,219 names on it that grace the original granite memorial wall, said Pat Willis, who heads the committee that won the promise to have the replica wall return to Payson after an eight-year absence.
Millions of people have stood before the replica wall in the decade it has been on continual tour since it was cast in Phoenix. The $18,000 raised will pay for the transportation and installation costs, a tent in which groups can hold memorial services, an opening ceremony, the help of guides and volunteers, and an exhibit that will include memorials to each of the nation's wars -- including a tribute to Americans slain in the current conflict in Iraq, said Willis.
The organizers will set up the wall with its burden of 58,000 names in Green Valley Park, close to the existing memorial that bears the names of Arizona's war dead on 23 bronze plaques, built in 2001 with $55,000 donated by the Benefactors of the Payson Veteran's Memorial and hours of volunteer effort. Anyone wishing to donate or volunteer can call Willis on his cell phone at 595-1347.
Currently, organizers are working to arrange for a motorcycle escort for the wall from the New Mexico border, which will likely include several hundred motorcyclists.
In addition, former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, a Vietnam Marine Corps veteran who lost both his legs during a firefight in Vietnam, will be the keynote speaker at brief opening ceremonies on June 6.
In addition, the ceremonies will include a candlelight vigil and a ceremonial reading of the names that will last for about two days.
The three-day stop in Payson represents the only display of the wall in Arizona. Willis said organizers here used "the begging method" to convince the American Veteran Traveling Tribute to work in the stopover in Payson while moving the wall from Albuquerque to Los Angeles. Back when Payson first won the right to host the wall eight years ago, the organizers had to waive a rule to only set up the wall in communities with at least 50,000 residents. However, the 12,000-person turnout last time prompted a change in the rule.
Organizers hope that the exhibit will help promote healing and reconciliation among Vietnam era veterans, many of whom faced such criticism for their role in the war when they returned home that they hid away their uniforms and never talked about their experiences, said Bill Sahno, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam in the Third Marine Division.
"For many guys, it was traumatic stepping back onto American soil," due to the fierce protests of the war among civilians. "The civilian folks didn't greet us as heroes. I think that's one reason I stayed in the Marines for 30 years" and worked so hard to bring the wall back to Payson. "Some of the Vietnam vets are still kind of coming out of the closet, some have never been able to bring themselves to go see the wall" in Washington, D.C. Therefore, organizers hope that the traveling exhibit can both help veterans gain closure and help civilians honor their service and understand their struggle.
Willis, who served in the 173rd Airborne Infantry in Vietnam, recalled one incident from the last time the wall came to Payson.
A young woman came up and asked one of the volunteer guides how to find a certain name on that wall, explaining it was the name of her father who died when she was an infant, before he ever saw her.
A few minutes later, an older woman asked the same guide how to find that same name -- explaining that the man was her husband. When the surprised guide explained that her daughter was already at the wall -- he discovered that they didn't know each other. As it turned out, the girl had been born out of wedlock to another woman and the older woman had married the serviceman just before he shipped overseas.
Willis said the wall had brought about many remarkable healings and reconciliations. "They didn't even know that they other one existed," said Willis. "What are the odds of that happening?"
Willis said the arrival of the memorial will give the chance to honor all of the nation's war dead, including the young men still dying in Iraq.
"Most people who see it are stunned by the sheer size of it" and the endless list of names, said Willis. "We think it's really important that it's coming to Payson -- not only because it's the 25th anniversary of the creation of the original wall, but the other things going on in the world right now."