Faces of the Wall reaches 20,000 photos as education center gains momentum
By JENNIFER HLAD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 11, 2014
Nearly a decade ago, Jim Reece and his brother Tom were talking about a high school friend who had been killed in Vietnam, and they decided to look online to see if there was any information about him on a memorial site.
Jim Reece couldn’t find a page for his friend, so he decided to create one. Then he began building memorial pages for everyone from his high school who was killed in Vietnam. When he finished that, he built a page for everyone from his hometown of Wilmington, N.C. Then, for everyone from that county.
Since 2005, Jim and Tom Reece and their friend Rosa King have found photos of and built memorial pages for more than 1,700 people with connections to North Carolina who were killed in Vietnam.
The Reeces and King are among the volunteers scattered across the country who have been working to gather photos of every one of the 58,300 dead American servicemembers whose names are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The photos will be a key part of an education center adjacent to the Wall in Washington, D.C. The center will include the history of the Wall, the Wall of Faces, stories recorded by veterans and an exhibit of some of the objects left by families and others since the Wall was built in 1982 (a virtual Wall of Faces is online).
Organizers are raising funds for the center, hoping to hit a 2017 deadline and 2019 opening.
Jim Reece joined the military in 1970, serving in the Army and later the Air Force, but never deployed to Vietnam. His brother, Tom, had bad knees and flat feet that kept him from being able to enlist. Searching for the photos is their way to give back and honor the legacy of those who died, Jim Reece said.
When volunteer Janna Hoehn was in high school, “every day was Vietnam,” she said, with news everywhere about the war.
The conflict ended around the same time she graduated, she said, and though she didn’t know anyone who was killed, when she saw the Wall for the first time it had a profound effect on her.
“I didn’t want to go away without a rubbing of one of those names,” she said.
Hoehn picked Gregory John Crossman, a 26-year-old pilot who was missing in action. She wanted to find his family to give them the rubbing. After months of searching, she asked a relative skilled in research to help her find a photo of Crossman.
The experience stuck with her, and when she later read about the effort to put photos with the names on the Wall, she sent in the photo of Crossman. She also volunteered to help look for photos of the troops from Maui who had been killed in Vietnam.
Like Reece, Hoehn’s efforts have increased as she adds more hometowns to her list. The process isn’t easy – Jim Reece recounted how his brother has tracked down former next-door neighbors in an effort to find photos, and Hoehn typically asks local newspapers to print the list of the names of troops whose photos are missing.
In the last year, she said, she collected more than 700 photos.
“It was horrible how our boys were treated when they came home,” she said recently, in a phone conversation from her home in Hawaii. “It just breaks your heart. This is kind of a welcome home for our Vietnam vets, and it’s bringing them honor as well.”
While the Wall is incredibly powerful, she said, putting a face with each name “changes the whole dynamic.”
“It makes them real,” she said.
Tim Tetz, director of public outreach for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, said that after years of work, the process has reached a stage akin to a bit of snow giving way to an avalanche. Photos are coming in “in droves,” he said, with about 20,000 left to go.
Anyone who knows a person who was killed in Vietnam can visit the website and type in the person’s name. If there is no photo, or if you have a better-quality photo, Hoehn said it can be sent to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I just can’t wait until that day that we’re all finished,” she said. “Until we have them all, it’s not enough.”