Vietnam Memorial Wall evokes stories in visit to Elgin
By Janelle Walker For Sun-Times Media September 19, 2013 7:02PM
Tim Tetz, director of outreach with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, tells teens gathered Thursday in Elgin following the ceremony about the wall's construction and the controversy that surrounded its 1982 unveiling in Washington, D.C. | Janelle Walker~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 21, 2013 2:12PM
ELGIN — There is a phenomenon that happens at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — both with the original in Washington, D.C., and with the traveling wall that is on display this week in Elgin — called “Wall Magic.”
“Wall magic makes your skin crawl and gives you goose bumps,” said Tim Tetz, director of outreach for the memorial fund and “The Wall That Heals,” the half-size replica of the wall on display in Elgin through Sunday.
He said he talked to a woman who came to the U.S. after her family fled Vietnam during the war and who later became a nurse with the Veterans Administration. On one Veterans Day in Washington, D.C., that nurse spoke to the widow of a soldier who had died in her village, Tetz said.
Another time, he talked to a man who spent his first three months in Vietnam looking for a downed plane and its pilot. When that veteran later went to the Wall, looking for the name of that pilot, he didn’t find it.
What he did find was that same pilot was standing next to him — having survived for four years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Tetz said.
Wall magic, such as in those incidents, happens everywhere the Wall travels, Tetz said.
The official opening for Elgin’s visit of the Wall That Heals was held Thursday morning in the Hemmens Cultural Center — a last-minute move due to the morning rainstorm outside.
Since the Wall was set up Wednesday, about 50 people had come through to see it through the night, said Jack Darr, one of the local co-chairmen of the project.
The Wall That Heals is in Elgin as part of the Gail Borden Public Library District’s Big Read in the Northern Fox Valley, focusing on the Vietnam War memoir “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. Special programs and events related to the book and the Vietnam War era will take place through Nov. 11.
While the Wall That Heals is on display, services for veterans will be available near the memorial site. The Hines Veterans Mobile Vet Center will be near the Wall from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. It will provide health services such as flu shots and checkups as well as provide information about housing, health and employment resources. Therapy Dogs Inc. and Delta Society will provide therapy dogs during the daytime in proximity of the Wall That Heals to provide comfort to visitors.
A second ceremony and candlelight vigil honoring prisoners of war and those missing in action will take place at 7 p.m. Friday. More than 40 service personnel from the northern Fox Valley who died in the Vietnam War will be honored.
‘They were better’
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial — be it the original or a traveling wall — helps bring together a country that was divided during the 16-year war, said Dwayne Buttel of St. Charles. He was an Air Force fighter pilot during the war and flew 153 missions in combat territory.
He apologized to his fellow fighter pilots — the ones that didn’t return from the war, Buttel said.
“They were probably better than I was,” he said.
Those who didn’t come back were likely better sons and daughter, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers than he was, Buttel said.
“I can’t understand why I am here and you are not,” he said.
Neither can he understand the stigma that Vietnam veterans found themselves facing when they returned, and how even many veterans organizations turned their back on them.
The memorial wall began healing those old wounds, Buttel said.
“Those of us from the Vietnam era are well-aware of the changing public sentiment” toward them, he said.
“Perhaps it is this Wall, this healing Wall” that has made the change.
Asking those veterans to share their stories — both from the war and after — is part of what Deborah Grassman does. As a Veterans Administration nurse practitioner, she has held the hands of 10,000 Vietnam veterans as they died, she said. Grassman has spoken twice in Elgin in recent days about her book “Peace at Last,” recounting those experiences.
“Each name on this wall has a story, and each name can generate even more stories,” she said. “Open yourself up to listen to those stories.”