Bob Thompson, an Athens resident, looks for names on “The Wall That Heals,” a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Bob Thompson, an Athens resident, looks for names on “The Wall That Heals,” a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Photographer: Emily Matthews

Visitors to “The Wall That Heals” look at one of the exhibits on display at the wall’s mobile education center on Sept. 15.

Visitors to “The Wall That Heals” look at one of the exhibits on display at the wall’s mobile education center on Sept. 15.

Photographer: Emily Matthews

State Rep. Jay Edwards presents a proclamation to (from left) Dave Edwards Sr., Char Kopchick and President M. Duane Nellis, recognizing Ohio University for its role in bringing “The Wall That Heals” to the residents of Southeastern Ohio.

State Rep. Jay Edwards presents a proclamation to (from left) Dave Edwards Sr., Char Kopchick and President M. Duane Nellis, recognizing Ohio University for its role in bringing “The Wall That Heals” to the residents of Southeastern Ohio.

Photo courtesy of: Todd Anderson

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Thousands visit OHIO to experience replica of Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VIDEO)

Sunday, Sept. 17, concluded a three-and-a-half-day period of reflection, education, mourning and healing on Ohio University’s Athens Campus as thousands took time to experience a half-scale replica of one of our nation’s most visited memorials.

“The Wall That Heals” was on display 24 hours a day at OHIO’s Bicentennial Park Sept. 14-17. Unveiled on Veterans Day 1996, “The Wall That Heals” is an outreach effort of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to honoring and preserving the legacy of service and educating all generations about the impact of the Vietnam War. 

“The Wall That Heals” literally rolled into Athens on Sept. 13, escorted from Logan, Ohio, to Ohio University by more than 100 motorcyclists, including many Vietnam veterans; troopers from the Ohio State Highway Patrol; and officers from the Ohio University Police Department; and accompanied by a University bus. The tractor-trailer that carries the wall also houses a mobile education center that features exhibits designed to tell the story of the Vietnam War and the era surrounding the conflict as well as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 

Upon arriving on the Athens Campus, cadets in OHIO’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs, as well as staff from the University’s Campus Involvement Center, assisted staff from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in erecting the wall’s 24 panels. Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the panels of “The Wall That Heals” contain the 58,318 names of the servicemen and women who died serving in the Vietnam War, listed by day of casualty.

“The Wall That Heals” officially opened to the public at 6 a.m. on Sept. 14, and the Ohio University and Athens communities joined together that evening to recognize the occasion and to honor and thank those who served and died in the Vietnam War during a welcoming ceremony.

“The crowd I see before me offers gratitude and reverence,” Col. (Ret.) Chip Tansill, director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, said in helping to kick off the ceremony. “The crowd I see – veterans, families, students and community members – has come with open hearts and minds to an opportunity to reflect, mourn, seek closure, connect and heal. Though the wounds that each individual brings may be apparent or invisible, this is a chance to experience a reconciliation decades in the making.”

Col. (Ret.) Tansill noted the stark difference between the day’s events and those that occurred in Athens nearly 50 years ago when protests against the expansion of the Vietnam War led to the closing of Ohio University and the cancelling of spring Commencement. 

“I note this difficult time in our communities to be able to point to how far we’ve come,” Col. (Ret.) Tansill said. “For anyone who stood on these lawns and these streets during the Vietnam War, whether with a sign in protest or in uniform, you know the immense importance of all of us assembling here for a united mission – a mission to show respect and gratitude to every man and woman who answered the call to duty, to mourn those who did not return and to honor the immeasurable sacrifices that each soldier makes.”

In welcoming all in attendance to the OHIO community, Ohio University President M. Duane Nellis reflected on his personal connection to the Vietnam War, having had a brother-in-law who served in the conflict as an Army infantryman and who earned three Purple Hearts. He also commented on how special the occasion was for the University, which has been honored to be designated Military Friendly for the past six years. Dr. Nellis noted that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed by Athens native Maya Lin who studied computer programming at Ohio University while in high school, whose parents both worked at the University and who designed the earthwork installation at the center of the park that hosted “The Wall That Heals” visit. 

“This is a proud day for Ohio University, the City of Athens and the entire Southeastern Ohio region,” President Nellis said. “It is my honor to stand before you today as we gather to remember the brave men and women whose names appear on this wall, and to honor those American heroes who have also paid the ultimate sacrifice before and since Vietnam. … It is so important that we memorialize these heroes and remind ourselves and our children of the true cost of living in a free nation.”

Representing the City of Athens, Mayor Steve Patterson, a retired U.S. Air Force major, spoke about the wall’s purpose and its reach, noting that it traveled to Athens from Montana and would be leaving Athens to head to Michigan.

“It makes my heart soar to look out and see so many young individuals out there touring that wall right now as opposed to the Vietnam conflict being a chapter in a history book,” Mayor Patterson said. “They are out there getting to see it for themselves.”

Mayor Patterson noted the patriotism and service to country prevalent in the local community. Among the more than 58,000 who perished in the Vietnam War were 18 Athens County residents, including eight City of Athens residents. Mayor Patterson read each of those eight names.

“This wall, in a lot of ways, has brought them home,” he said.

Among those attending the ceremony was local resident Linda Sheets whose brother was killed in Vietnam on Sept. 19, 1970.

“It still hurts me to say that,” she said. “We’ve been to D.C. to the wall, and it is truly a power, an overwhelming power, but it really does leave you with a sense of comfort. … The service here today was amazing. It just touched on so many hearts.”

Little Hocking resident Bill White served in Vietnam in the Air Force from 1969-1973 and said he came to the welcoming ceremony to remember the friends that he lost.

“I hope those who visit this wall understand that it was more than a war – that it was people who cared enough to give their lives and people who really weren’t understood when they came home,” White said. “The support of the country wasn’t there to welcome home the people like it is today.”

Albany resident Thomas Smith Sr. is a retired Navy chief who served from 1963 to 1985 and is past department commander for the Department of Ohio AMVETS. He served on the committee that organized the wall’s visit and rode on the Ohio University bus that helped escort the wall to the Athens Campus, which he described as a “proud moment.”

“I served in Vietnam, and I left brothers and sisters behind,” Smith said. “By being involved in this activity today, it allows me to personally and privately do what I think is right.”

Lt. Col. Layla Sweet, commander of Ohio University’s Air Force ROTC program, attended the ceremony with two of her peers, Maj. Timothy Johansen, recruiting flight commander for OHIO’s Air Force ROTC program, and Brook Lee, a professor of military science with OHIO’s Army ROTC program.

“All three of us are stationed here, so, of course, we would come to support the Veterans Center,” Lt. Col. Sweet said, referring to Ohio University’s Brigadier General James M. Abraham and Colonel Arlene F. Greenfield Veterans and Military Student Services Center, which spearheaded “The Wall That Heals” visit with the Campus Involvement Center and support from partners through the University and Athens communities. “The Veterans Center does a lot for the veterans and for the active duty students here on campus.”

Athens resident Sue Dillon attended the welcoming ceremony with her grandson, Brodey. Originally from Glouster, Dillon said she knew almost all of the 18 Athens County residents whose names grace the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and was there specifically for them and to teach her grandson.

“It’s very important to me that my grandson learn some of this history,” she said. “If we don’t pass this on to the younger generation, there is going to be a lot of forgotten history. It might be in the textbooks, but it won’t be in the hearts.”

Among the thousands of Ohio University students who took time to experience “The Wall That Heals” with either their classes or on their own were Aliyah Houston and Tristen Davis. They were among the dozens of members of the OHIO community who helped staff the wall during its visit.

“I love history,” Houston, a nursing major from Cleveland, said when asked why she volunteered. “I’ve never been to a monument like this before. I don’t know how to explain everything that I’ve experienced here, but I’ve learned a lot.”

While volunteering, Houston and Davis both had the opportunity to help members of the community located names of loved ones and people of interest on the wall, including a young man who was looking up his grandfather’s friend who had perished in the war.

“I have three great-uncles who fought in the Vietnam War,” Davis, a criminology major from Columbus, said. “I wanted to come out here and experience some of the knowledge that they’ve shared with me over the years.”

Erin Franczak contributed to this article.