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Vietnam Traveling Wall returns to DeSoto for six-day viewing starting June 11

The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall returns to DeSoto County this week bringing wartime memories to younger generations.

“It’s hallowed ground, wherever it goes up,” said Rusty Constantino of Southaven, an Army veteran of the Vietnam era who served in the Pacific.

“It’s good — anytime something can be done to build public awareness for what veterans there and other conflicts have gone through, it helps,” said DeSoto Veterans Services officer Steve Powell, a Marine veteran of Vietnam. For four years, he’s been helping veterans and their families get information and clear hurdles for benefits. He’ll be retiring from his county post at the end of June.

“It means a lot to me,” said Constantino of the wall, “because I have three friends whose names are up there.”

He’s a member of Mississippi Chapter 2 of the Rolling Thunder veterans-advocacy association, which along with Landers Auto Group is co-sponsoring the wall’s six-day visit at the Landers Center at 4560 Venture Drive in Southaven off Church Road at Interstate 55. The opening ceremony is Wednesday at 7 p.m. with remarks by Chancery Judge Percy Lynchard. Closing events are set for June 16 at 9 a.m.

The wall’s previous stop at the Landers campus was in May 2012 for a county-sponsored salute to veterans of the1955-75 conflict. The event drew thousands to reflect and remember.

The Vietnam wall, nearly 300 feet long, is a three-fifths-scale replica of the Washington memorial with the names of Americans who fell in the in the line of duty in an unpopular war. The wall is a project of the Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, a grass roots, nonprofit group based in Brevard County, Fla.

Rolling Thunder volunteer Diane Moore of the Lake Cormorant area said help is needed with assisting visitors in locating names on the wall, security, and setup and takedown. Her husband R.G. is a Vietnam-era Marine veteran.

“We’ll be assembling the wall starting at 8 a.m. Wednesday and we should be through about 1 or 2 p.m.,” Moore said. “Once it’s up, the wall is open for viewing, all day and all night, 24 hours a day.” There is no charge for viewing.

The county is stepping up with donations of gravel and fuel for lighting, actions approved by the Board of Supervisors last week.

“The Wall is long and the area they’re putting it on isn’t quite level, so we’re going to supply some gravel so they can stabilize it,” said county road manager Andy Swims. The cost will be about $810 for three loads, he said.

“Generator fuel for Wall lighting is the only other thing they’ve asked for from us,” said County Administrator Vanessa Lynchard. “But we’ll keep the door open for other help that we can provide.”

The wall is “always worthwhile,” said Lynchard, who helped coordinate the 2012 visit. “If you haven’t seen it, you should — it’s a feeling like no other.”

“We’re always pleased with any kind of enrichment for the community,” said Supervisor Lee Caldwell of Nesbit, board president whose husband John is a retired Marine Reserve colonel. “This is such a meaningful program for our veterans and their families. Plus it helps teach history to our youths, without the need to travel to Washington.”

R.G. Moore said the wall, dismantled and coming in from Missouri on its special truck, will be met by its DeSoto escort in Corinth on Tuesday at the intersection of U.S. 72 and U.S. 45.

“We’ll form up starting at 11 a.m., and we expect to leave for Southaven about 2 p.m.,” said Moore. When the motorcycle escort gets to Goodman Road, Miss. 305 and eventually Church Road, local police will be joining, he said. “We expect to arrive at the Landers Center about 3:30 or 4 p.m.”

In Vietnam, Powell served 19 months, from November 1966 to June 1968 with the 1st Marine Air Wing in Da Nang.

“We had a lot of rocket attacks and snipers, but other than that it wasn’t too bad,” said Powell. “I was there during Tet, and it did get a little nasty.”

The North Vietnamese Tet Offensive of January 1968 surprised U.S. forces, but as in the World War II Battle of the Bulge in 1944-45, the Americans regrouped — and with South Vietnamese allies gained a major military victory.

But the battle was a political loss at home.

U.S. domestic support for the long Southeast Asian war ebbed and the peace movement was emboldened. Powell recalls no parade when he returned, duty to country done; he was spat on by foes of the war.

Powell said that amid Tet his unit suffered 75 percent casualties.

Some names on the Wall still hit hard at his heart after nearly a half-century.

“I was in D.C. last month and walked the Wall,” said Powell. “It’s one of the hardest things you can do as a veteran.”

But he’ll be out at the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall. It reawakens painful, torn memories, but it also builds bridges.

“It helps people understand,” said Powell.

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