A mobile tribute to fallen veterans

October 07, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

FAWN GROVE, PA. -- Donald Androsky, who served three Army combat tours in Vietnam and spent a year helping families of fallen soldiers, remembers an era of poorly attended funerals, raging anti-war demonstrations and anger toward returning veterans.

Decades later, with the nation waging war in Iraq, he takes consolation that much has changed.

"It was not like today, when thousands come out to honor a fallen soldier," said Androsky, 68, a retired Harford County planner. "At least now, veterans are not getting hostile receptions when they come home."

Androsky's reflections came this week as he helped erect a traveling replica of the Vietnam War Memorial near his home in this southern Pennsylvania town.

Visitors to the half-scale replica, which will stand in a lush green field across from South Eastern Middle School until Monday, found themselves compelled toward comparisons to the current conflict in the Middle East.

"These guys got such a bad deal, when they came back," Joanne Klein, the wife of a Vietnam veteran, said of the time when troops returned from Vietnam. "But like today, they were dedicated to a cause and fighting for their country. I hope people learned from that. I hope they respect whoever is in charge and support our government."

The mood of that era stands in sharp contrast to today, an incongruity not lost on Tim Young, a retired Baltimore County police officer and Navy veteran of Vietnam. He was among almost 1,000 people who lined Abingdon Road in Harford County with flags and signs of support during a funeral last week for a Navy petty officer killed in Iraq.

On Thursday, Young, 54, visited the wall exhibit, wearing a T-shirt printed with a picture of the original monument and a black wristband inscribed with words to honor "the 58,200 Americans who never returned from Vietnam."

"A lot of us disagree with war, but we still fight for our country," he said. "This is our history, good, bad or indifferent."

As the volunteers set up the model wall, many lingered at a name.

Young knew exactly where to find the name of his cousin Kenneth D. Kralick, who was killed with seven others in an explosion. Androsky easily located a comrade - Maj. Johnson F. Frank, killed in 1967 by an artillery round.

"It lets me walk through the years," Androsky said. "There are many here that I can recall."

The wall arrived as Fawn Grove, a town a few miles north of the Harford County line, celebrates its 125th anniversary. Volunteers mounted the glossy black aluminum panels on a nearly 255-foot long wooden base that was later covered in camouflage-print canvas. Each panel is filled with the names of the dead printed in white letters.

Maurice Klein, 62, an Air Force veteran of Vietnam, has visited the original monument in Washington, D.C., and worked for years to bring the traveling wall exhibit - called The Wall - to his home town.

"It is difficult to explain, but once you have seen it, there are no questions," Klein said. "With more than 58,000 names stretching out 500 feet, the message gets home really quick."

The replica exhibit was founded in 1984, shortly after the national monument was dedicated.

Three exhibits travel around the country, typically making five-day stops. The replica came to Fort Meade 10 years ago and to Salisbury in 2002.

John Devitt, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1967 and co-founded the traveling wall project, has driven the memorial to many sites in the last 23 years, "to give vets from all over an opportunity to walk up to it," he said.

"The impact is the same," he said. "It is not the size, it's the magnitude of names."

Joy Gagnon travels with Devitt and often finds herself waxing the panels, mostly buffing away fingerprints.

"Everybody has some kind of connection," she said. "There are two men from my home county on here. They died together, one trying to save the other."

Charles Pollock, an Army draftee sent to Vietnam in 1966, watched as a group of middle-school pupils who were among the first visitors walked the length of the wall.

"This is a good thing for kids to see," said Pollock, a town resident who recently retired from the Baltimore County Fire Department.

"There were so many negatives about this war. The students should see the human side of it, not just the political side," Pollock said.

Devitt and Gagnon, who live in White Pine, Mich., drove the exhibit from Brookfield, Wis., to Fawn Grove and will move on to Shelton, Conn., next week. Several members of the Patriot Guard motorcyclists escorted the truck carrying the panels to the town and will see it on its way to Interstate 83 on Monday.

"My father and uncle served in Vietnam, but thank God, they are not on the wall," said cyclist Rob Davis of Felton, Pa.

The exhibit exudes an aura of sadness, but it also has "healing power," said Devitt. Despite the opposition and disillusionment that surrounded the war, he says taking part in the exhibit for the past 23 years has been uplifting.

"It's about honor, sacrifice and lives we should all celebrate," he said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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