Visiting replica of Vietnam monument has the original's full emotional impact

June 16, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

Fingers searched, hesitantly at first, then faster as they approached the correct line. Then they stopped and began to brush slowly across the letters spelling out the names on the wall.

Frederick Wilson of the 2000 block of Eagle Street, who did four tours in Vietnam between 1968 and 1972 in the 101st Airborne Division, stood with tears streaming from beneath his blue-lensed sunglasses yesterday as he touched the name of Edward A. Gaffney, killed in April 1968 in Hue. "He was my cousin," Mr. Wilson said.

Mr. Wilson said he has visited the 490-foot black granite wall in Washington several times, always with the same sadness of recollection. Yesterday, he was visiting a replica of the memorial at Meadowridge Memorial Park in Baltimore. "I've tried to talk others in the family, his sister, into going to Washington, but I couldn't do it. And they wouldn't come here today."

Mildred Fitez of Ellicott City held a strip of paper against the replica and rubbed with a piece of graphite. Slowly, the name took shape: Harry S. Fitez Jr., her only son, killed in January 1968 at age 20.

Mrs. Fitez has visited the wall in Washington, too, but something drew her to the replica yesterday. It was soothing. "You can't bring them back, but it's good to see the names on the wall," she said.

Even though it is a replica, the strong symbolism and healing effect that draws millions of visitors to the original wall remains the same.

Richard Schneider of Arbutus said the wall in Washington had therapeutic effect on him, "and this is very much like it."

Mr. Schneider, who served in the 25th Infantry Division, said he first visited the original wall almost by accident when he was in Washington for a passport application.

"I was walking toward the wall along Constitution Avenue against the traffic, all that traffic coming toward me," he said. "Then I saw the wall and it really hit me, it symbolized my struggle. It was the realization of what I went through -- in 1986 it was still more denial than anything else. I want to thank all the people who tried and are still trying to help the vets returning, especially my family."

Mr. Schneider is active in the Vietnam Veterans of America, which, he said, "brings a lot of us together; it's something we share."

Frank Stacey of the VVA's Bel Air chapter was trying yesterday to find the names of the 32 Harford County men who died in Vietnam. He wanted to make rubbings of their names.

"I knew a lot of those guys," he said. "I came down yesterday so I wouldn't make a fool of myself today."

Franklin Barbour of Baltimore, who served in the 9th Infantry Division, said he helped to erect the 240-foot-long replica and helped early-comers on Friday make rubbings of names.

He said it feels the same as at the wall in Washington: "It boils down to the names."

Yesterday's ceremony began when a Marine Corps color guard hoisted the Stars and Stripes, the Maryland flag and the black POW/MIA banner. The Vietnam Veterans were joined by other organizations, Gold Star Mothers, Gold Star Wives and Veterans of Foreign Wars among them, in laying wreaths at the replica and paying tribute to the men and women whose names are inscribed.

People brought private tributes, too: a single dark red rose; a bouquet of red, white and blue carnations; a photocopy of a mother's "Dear Bill" letter to her son; a khaki baseball cap of the style worn in Vietnam beneath a camouflaged pen marked 97th ARCOM; and a few shoulder patches of Vietnam units.

The replica, made of plastic composition, was created as a traveling exhibit by Service Corporation International, which owns Meadowridge and is one of the country's largest cemetery companies.

SCI employees and volunteers helped visitors to find the names they sought with books listing each name and its location and a computer to search when only part of a name or the approximate date of death is known.

Les Lowther, representing SCI, said the replica began its 100-city tour last December in Phoenix, Ariz. "There are a lot of people who can't get to Washington, so we're taking the wall to them. It has a healing effect on people," he said.

The exhibit will be open today from 10:30 a.m. until 6 p.m.

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