Memories And Tears Flow At Tribute Wall

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With the Tribute Wall standing in silent testimony to those Americans who died in the Vietnam War, more than 3,000 turned out June 7 at Green Valley Park to honor the fallen heroes.

The hour-long ceremony, which was highlighted by a thundering flyover of F-16 fighter jets, turned into a moving tribute that brought together people from all walks of life.

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Ted Kosnik carefully records the name of a former high school classmate that he found on the Tribute Wall after a memorial ceremony on Saturday. The Wall was visited by an estimated 30,000 people during its three days in Payson. For additional stories and photos, turn to 7A and 12A.

Some visitors were Vietnam War veterans, some had probably opposed the war and others were too young to remember the scars and cultural trauma inflicted by the longest and most controversial war in United States history.

It was obvious that those in attendance were not there to spew commentary on the war itself but instead honor and remember the sacrifices of those 58,256 service men and women listed on the somber exhibit.

"Are you a newspaper reporter," Phoenix resident Dan Sellis asked. "If so, write about how wonderful this tribute is. Payson can be so proud of what went on here, this is a very emotional experience -- it can change people's lives."

Guest speaker Rick Romley, a Vietnam Marine veteran who lost both legs in the war, added his personal slant to those names inscribed on The Tribute Wall, saying they were fighting as much for their love of one another as for their of love of their country."

Choking back tears, he also told the audience, "The Wall inspires us to honor and remember all who served."

Romley, a former Maricopa County Attorney, said that many veterans who visit the memorial "Are made one with the monument" and it serves to heal the wounds of many of those who survived Vietnam.

Poignant emotions also gripped master of ceremonies Pat Willis during his welcoming speech.Willis served in the Army's 173rd Airborne in Vietnam and chaired the committee that brought The Tribute Wall to Payson.

While listening to Romley and Willis struggle with their emotions, one middle-aged woman, whispered to a friend, "They're crying."

Overhearing that, a tall weathered man, wearing a black vets T-shirt with an American bald eagle on it, tapped her on the shoulder and politely scolded, "That's the way it should be, ma'am."

Later, his lanky frame could be seen climbing on a Harley Davidson and motoring off with a veteran's motorcycle group that had escorted The Wall into Payson.

The presence of the memorial on the carefully manicured Green Valley Park lawn allowed some visitors to connect with someone they knew who died in Vietnam.

Ted Kosnik knelt on one knee and carefully ran his fingers over the name of his former high school classmate Robert J. Araujo.

"He was killed Oct. 14, 1967 in Quang Tri," Kosnik said. "He was the first person from our high school in Staten Island, New York to die in the war."

Some visitors did not personally know anyone who died or is missing in action in Vietnam.

"This is a chance to pay my respect, to say thanks," said Valley resident Kim Wright. "But, the longer I'm around, the more the impact of The Wall grows."

Retired United States Air Force Colonel Richard Oliver has visited both the moving Wall and the stationary one in Washington D.C.

"Both are equally impressive," he said. "The moving wall gives people who might never make it to Washington, D.C., a chance to show their respect."

In 1969, Oliver, then a captain, was piloting HH-43 Kaman helicopters in Vietnam. After his tour, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing a squad of soldiers who were fleeing a flood and engaged in a fierce firefight with Viet Cong.

"My time there was spent rescuing others so I really never killed anyone, but they were trying to kill me," he said.

Oliver remembers his return to the United States from Vietnam being much less than a welcome home party.

"I landed in Seattle wearing my uniform and no one in the airport would look me in the eye," he said. "It was like I was a big embarrassment to my country.

"The way we were treated is something you never really forget."

In Romley's keynote address, he remembered how the memorial's initial design drew the wrath of many veterans who believed it was just another slap in the face to those who fought in Vietnam.

Some compared it to an ugly scar that reflected the disgust the government and public had shown those who fought in Vietnam.

But the Wall -- which stands in sharp contrast to what most Americans believe a memorial should look like --is now revered for its simple granite face, adorned only by the names of the dead, that serves as a powerful reminder of the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The emotional impact of the Wall's three-day visit to Payson is impossible to gauge. But many who attended said they hoped the outpouring of pride shown those who served in Vietnam will, in some small way, make amends to the service men and women who never received the credit they deserved for their devotion to friends and country.

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