Onlookers reflect as Vietnam memorial replica visits Montana
Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont. (MCT)
Pat Curran strode briskly across the grass, still clad in his leather motorcycle gear as he approached the Moving Wall. In his hand he clutched the names of three high school buddies from Anaconda, Mont., who died while serving in the Vietnam War.
On the half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on display in Whitefish, Mont., he found those names.
“I’ve never been able to go to Washington, D.C.,” the 65-year-old Navy veteran said with tears in his eyes. “I looked it up online, but it’s different physically seeing it. It’s moving for me. My emotion is for everybody” who died during the war.
Curran is one of a multitude of people who are making their way to “the wall that heals” for quiet reflection and remembrances. The memorial wall remains on display at Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, 24 hours a day, through Sunday.
The event is hosted by Whitefish VFW Post 276, and all area VFW posts and other military organizations helped in various ways. Many veterans directed onlookers to the names they came to find on the wall.
The replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., has been making its way around the country since 1984, with stops in more than 1,000 communities. It’s the first time the wall has been displayed in Montana's Flathead Valley.
The wall contains 58,272 carved names of American military personnel who died during the war in Vietnam.
“I have friends on the wall,” Bill Nicholls of Butte said. He rode with the Patriot Guard Riders from the Idaho border on, accompanying the memorial as it made its way to Whitefish.
“It’s quite an honor to do this,” said Nicholls, who served with the Army in Vietnam from 1966 to 1972.
Ed Croucher of Eureka, the state commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, lost 12 of his fellow soldiers in Vietnam.
“I felt guilty I didn’t get shot,” said, recalling a fatal shot to the neck of one of his buddies, who died in his arms.
Croucher, a Marine who served 30 years in the military, emceed Thursday’s ceremony, but told the audience he still gets too emotional to talk about his war experiences in front of a crowd.
People paid their respects to the fallen soldiers in very personal ways. Some laid their hand across a particular name; others took photographs. Some simply stared at the enormity of The Moving Wall.
Gary McKay of Whitefish never served in the military but has seven friends from his hometown in Western Massachusetts whose names are engraved on the memorial wall.
“All I wanted to do was touch the wall, and they’d know I was here,” McKay said. “I’ve had tears in my eyes all day, and I’m not usually like that.”
Many Whitefish residents came in search of the names of the two hometown boys who perished in the war: Doug Street and Manford Kleiv.
Among those searching for Street’s name was one of his teachers from the early 1960s, Alice Pike Dokken. When she found his name, she took a photograph on her cellphone.
“Doug used to sit in my study hall and flirt like crazy,” Dokken recalled with a smile.
She taught physical education in Whitefish schools for several years. During that time her husband Jim Pike, a retired Marine, encouraged Street to join the Marines.
Street, the son of active Whitefish community leaders Russ and Mary Jane Street, returned to his hometown for a few days after completing basic training, and Dokken remembers being one of the last people to wave goodbye to the young Street as he left on the train.
It was the last time she saw him. He was killed Feb. 28, 1967.
“I felt so awful,” Dokken said, explaining she always has felt a pang of guilt that her late husband talked Street into joining the Marines during such a volatile time.
Though Dokken has lived in New York for years, she makes an annual sojourn to Whitefish, and serendipitously, this year her visit coincided with the Moving Wall display.
Montana Lt. Gov. John Walsh, the keynote speaker at Thursday’s ceremony, said The Moving Wall, in its “majestic simplicity ... invariably brings with it a lot of discussion.
“It provides an opportunity for Montanans to reflect,” he said. “It soothes the deep scars. We’re consumed by the images behind the names.”
Walsh, who served 33 years with the Montana National Guard, said the deep scars of war include the way Vietnam veterans were treated when they came home.
“They didn’t return home to victory parades but were often dumped unceremoniously on some base,” Walsh said told the crowd. “Never again should men and women in uniform be treated as they were.”
Nancy Moser of Coram reiterated Walsh’s comments, saying “this is so important, to remember not to treat” veterans that way.
Moser has a POW-MIA tattoo on her shoulder that’s a collective reminder of the prisoners of war and those missing in action who remain unaccounted for. As a volunteer aide at Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania during the Vietnam War, Moser worked with amputees and a soldier who had been a prisoner of war.
As she visited the wall on Thursday, Moser, too, had a name to find, the cousin of a friend who’s currently staying at her home. Allen Fellows was shot down March 20, 1968, over Laos and remains missing in action.