Faces of sacrifice from the Vietnam War
Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Many Americans are familiar with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — commonly known as The Wall — on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The nearly 500-foot-long wall, a moving tribute in part because of its sheer magnitude, includes the names, inscribed in polished black granite, of the 58,272 U.S. troops who didn't return from the Vietnam War.
But now the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the nonprofit organization that built the wall, is making a push to put faces to those names — an effort strongly supported by some Chippewa Valley veterans advocates and survivors of military personnel killed in action.
The VVMF is calling for photographs and back stories of Vietnam War veterans listed on The Wall for display at a planned Education Center next to the structure. In 2003, Congress approved construction of the Education Center, which will include some of the 400,000 items left at The Wall as well as narratives about combat in Vietnam and larger-than-life photos of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war that ended in 1975.
The challenge is organizers still need photos of about 45 percent, or 26,000, of the veterans listed on The Wall.
"I love that they are trying to put faces to all of those names," said Pam Nesbit of Fall Creek, a sister of Warrant Officer Terry Mezera, an Eau Claire veteran who died in Cambodia on Jan. 16, 1971, at age 21. "They all gave their lives for their country, and they should be remembered."
Eau Claire County Veterans Service Officer Clif Sorenson said he encourages people to get involved with the project, although he knows some families prefer to keep their grief private and others find the subject reopens painful old wounds.
"I hope Wisconsin comes through strongly in making sure all of our photos are covered," he said.
The Wall lists the names of 1,160 Wisconsin residents, but 425 of them, including 28 from west-central Wisconsin, don't have photos submitted for the project.
Upon hearing about the push for photos, Nesbit submitted a second photo of her brother to the project.
Mike Libersky of Bloomer also contributed a photo of his brother Lance Cpl. William "Willie" Libersky of Bloomer, who died Jan. 11, 1970, in Vietnam at age 20 from combat wounds suffered five days earlier.
"It sounds like a great way to remember people," Mike Libersky said.
Organizers are required to have 100 percent of the project's cost raised before they start digging for the underground Education Center. The goal is to finish fundraising — they have raised $26.9 million of the needed $95 million — by 2015 and to open the center by Memorial Day of 2018, said Allyson Shaw, spokeswoman for the VVMF.
"We're trying to create a place that will honor not just Vietnam veterans but all veterans," Shaw said. "Hundreds of thousands of people have left things at The Wall, and it's really become a symbol of American grief."
The Wall, completed in 1984, attracts 4.5 million visitors annually, making it the second-most-visited site on the National Mall behind the Lincoln Memorial, she said.
Finishing the photo collection — and upgrading low-quality photos — will help personalize The Wall and demonstrate one missed smile at a time the cost of war, Shaw said. The VVMF has volunteers nationwide seeking photos, sometimes by combing through old high school yearbooks.
"It's important that we collect all of the photos because we don't want these people to be lost to history," she said, noting widespread opposition to the war led to many Vietnam veterans enduring poor treatment upon their return to the U.S.
A visit to The Wall is always a moving experience, said Sorenson, who has paid his respects at the memorial during at least 20 visits to Washington.
"My heart is always with them because I served in Vietnam," he said. "I could have been one of those names."
Still, Sorenson believes the impact will be even more powerful with the addition of the Education Center, which will include a huge wall of digital photos. Visitors will be able to enter a Vietnam veteran's name and have a photo of the man or woman pop up on a 60-foot-high screen.
"Seeing 58,000-plus names on the wall brings tears to my eyes, but having a picture attached will make it clear that those names all represent a real person," Sorenson said. "You'll get a better understanding that these are the sacrifices that we make for our freedom."
Nesbit said she experienced chills just making a rubbing of her brother's name while paying tribute at a smaller, traveling Wall memorial that has made stops in west-central Wisconsin. A visit to The Wall in Washington is definitely on her "bucket list," she added.
Adding photos and other personal touches — visitors to the Education Center will have the opportunity to receive a dog tag of a soldier, sailor or airman and learn more about that person's service — is a much-deserved tribute, Nesbit said.
"I know how wonderful my brother was, and I just think it's really important that everyone has a chance to know each and every one of them," Nesbit said, recalling she was 13 upon hearing her brother died and couldn't believe the news was real.
She described Mezera as a caring man who always had a smile on his face and a joke to tell. His surviving family members have been comforted by forging strong connections with several of the troops who served with him.
"I would love to have seen how he would have turned out in life, but it wasn't meant to be," Nesbit said of her brother, a helicopter pilot who was killed on a rescue mission.
Mike Libersky was 15 when his older brother was killed just five months after deploying to Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps. The newly formed AmVets Post 6440 in Bloomer is dedicated to Willie Libersky.
"He was the best brother a guy could have," Mike Libersky said. "I loved the hell out of him. I wish he was still here."
At least in a small way, Shaw said, the Education Center, with its sea of photos, will help keep alive the memories of those who died in the war.