A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2000/January 2001

The Moving Wall

John Devitt: Travels With The Wall

By Jim Belshaw

In 1982, Vietnam Veterans Memorial surprised John Devitt. Heíd gone to Washington from his San Jose, California, home mainly for the reunion aspect of The Wallís dedication. He was certain he wasnít going to like the memorial itself. Heíd read about it, followed its controversial beginnings. He couldnít imagine being moved by a block of stone. The last thing he expected to feel was pride.

Heíd been a First Calvary door gunner. In the twelve years that passed since his return from Vietnam, heíd known bitterness and anger. After that day at The Wall in 1982, it occurred to him that heíd hardly noticed how angry he was. Anger and bitterness had become part of him, second nature.

He hadnít known anything else until that day, when pride washed over him and he remembered all the reasons he had been proud so many years before.

"I walked up to The Wall and I felt this intense pride," he said. "I hadnít felt that since the day I left Vietnam. It was one thing nobody had mentioned in the twelve years Iíd been home. Everybody talked about guilt. I had tried guilt and it didnít work. I was very proud of the guys I was with and especially the ones who were killed. You canít give more than that. I was so glad to see their names out there in the public."

In the week of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication, it seemed to him that he couldnít turn on the TV or read a newspaper story without seeing the word "finally" -- Vietnam veterans can "finally lay to rest ..." or "finally put behind them ..."

The word grated.

"It was like, wait a minute, I just got here and I know all kinds of guys who arenít here yet and I was afraid the media was going to put a spin on it that it wasnít that a big a deal going to The Wall. And it was a big deal. You could look at The Wall and see what a big deal it was. It rekindled that pride. It made me remember."

Back home in San Jose, he was "jazzed" to do something, Devitt said.

Eighteen years later, heís still doing it.

He is on the road 10 months a year. He drives a truck and hauls a trailer. In the trailer are panels with more than 58,000 names. He crisscrosses the country, setting up The Moving Wall, watching the 1982 scene repeat itself over and over again.

"Over the years Iíve seen it do the same thing The Wall did to me in 1982," he said. "It generates pride. It's awesome."

Shortly after returning home, he talked with friends, looking for a way to channel the energy and motivation that comes with being "jazzed" to do something. Someone suggested a replica of The Wall. The idea didnít go far. Most people wanted to shelve it immediately.

"But in my mind, it seemed pretty simple", Devitt said. "Of course, in my mind, I was pretty simple, too. I thought. Well, how hard can it be to put 58,000 names on a wall?"

He kept talking it up. One day a friend pulled $2,000 out of his savings and said, "Letís go for it." Devitt pooled what little money he had. They knew nothing about fund-raising. All they had in the way of a plan was to start the project, get it off the ground, and then when they had something to show for the effort, people might be more willing to donate money to support it.

They returned to Washington and took photographs of The Wall, thinking that they would create a photographic mural. But when they enlarged the photos of the two center panels, thenames at the top were obscured.

"Our commitment was to make it a respectful memorial, not just a picture of The Wall," Devitt said. "We wanted to let people walk up and see the names."

A friend in Silicon Valley suggested that they silkscreen the names, an idea that sent them back to where they started--they needed good artwork.

Devitt called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and asked if he could borrow the negatives the fund had used to make stencils. To his surprise, the answer was yes.

"I called the architects, they asked for a name and address, and the next day Federal Express dropped off three big boxes of negatives," Devitt said. "It was amazing. To have those boxes of negatives was like having some sacred relic or something. It was spiritual."

Next, they needed to reverse the negatives to positives and then have them enlarged. Devitt went to a company in Sunnyvale, explained the need, and said he had little money but that he thought the idea was good enough that people would support it.

The company owner extended an $8,000 credit. When Devitt finally got the money to pay off the debt, the owner sent back $1,500.

"He was very supportive of veterans," Devitt said. "He said the $1,500 was his contribution."

The project began to attract local media attention. Each time an article appeared, donations spiked a little, but soon dwindled. Devitt thought it might help if he got some kind of government support.

He took a panel to a San Jose City Council meeting, hoping to explain the project well enough to leave with a letter of endorsement from the city. The council agreed to the letter, then quickly discussed the issue further and committed $16,000to the project.

In June 1984, Devitt received a telephone call from an AmVets group in Tyler, Texas. Theyíd heard about his replica of The Wall. Could he bring it to Tyler in October?

"It was June," Devitt said. "We didnít have to go until October. I thought we had plenty of time."

The last panel was silkscreened the night before he left for Tyler. He had never set up the structure before and didn't know how he was going to brace it to keep it from toppling over, but he figured he had more than two days of driving time to find a solution.

In Tyler, it took eight hours to assemble the panels. It was the first time Devitt had seen his wall standing.

"It was powerful right from the start," he said. "To see the panels stacked up against a wall is one thing, but to see it all up is something else again. It was awesome. Itís why Iím still doing it today. We saw the results every time we lifted a panel. It was impossible to walk away from it. Its effect on people was the same thing you see in Washington. The structure was different because itís smaller, but I donít think people pay attention to the size. They pay attention to the magnitude of it."

There are three Moving Walls now, each traveling the country, each in demand every year. Devitt says the requests never diminish. Many localities want it back again and again.

"My attitude has changed so much since I began doing this," he said. "I used to think maybe ten percent of the people had a handle on The Wall, they understood the ethics and morals on which it was founded. And the other 90 percent were just mindless. But after doing this, I found the exact opposite. The mindless ten percent just happen to get in the news all the time. There are a lot of caring people out there who understand the sacrifice and who are grateful to have the opportunity to come out as a community to give honor and recognition to those who lost their lives."

Destination: Vermont

Twenty-five years after the war ended--and often longer than that since a loved one died in it--they still come to The Wall. Eighteen years after The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington, 16 years after the first moving walls were built and began touring the country, they still come, oblivious to the differences in size or scope of the structure.

They donít come for its size and scope. They come for the names.

"Thereís nothing abstract about somebodyís name," said John Devitt, one of The Moving Wallís builders. "You look at a name and you think of a person who had hopes and dreams and family and friends."

Fred Frappiea Jr., had such hopes and dreams. They ended on ending on March 22, 1968, in Thua Thien, South Vietnam. He was 20 years old, a PFC in the 101st Airborne, Division when he was killed in action.

His name appears on Panel 45E, Line 55. His mother, Lona Frappiea, 78, has never seen it.

She went to The Moving Wall when it came to Bennington, Vermont., near her home in Saxtons River. But she could not bring herself to look at his name. To look at his name would mean that she had to give him up.

"I'll go where The Wall is, but I wonít go where his name is," she said. "I've never gone."

When The Moving Wall came to Vermont, she went on a day set aside to honor Gold Star parents. She wrote a letter to her son.

A volunteer placed it at the foot of the portable wall under his name.

"I had just become acquainted with VVA and the more I saw of them, the better I liked them," she said. "You can't get any better friend than a Vietnam veteran. Theyíre just wonderful people. Theyíre my families. I have never met a Vietnam veteran I didnít love. I wish I could get more Gold Star Mothers active because they don't know the love theyíe missing. A lot of people ask me how can I get up and do it, and I tell them, "itís not how can I get up and do it. I do it for my son."

When The Wall comes to a community, the community invariably responds. When The Wall That Heals, sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, came to Delaware County, Pa., George Brown spoke of an "outpouring" of support.

"You really donít know what to expect," he said. "The things people left at The Wall showed how it impacted them. Mementoes, the kind of thing you find down at Washington. But knowing The Wall was temporary, you wouldnít expect the effort to make up the little things they left."

A friend had gotten involved in the effort to bring The Wall That Heals to Delaware County. Brown advised on the protocols that needed to be followed and helped in the research.

"Thereís more awareness today of how people were treated," he said. "There are still a lot of family members around and we have quite a few Gold Star Mothers in the county. But I talked to three or four guys who had never been to The Wall."

In Vermont in 1991, John Miner was one of them. The Moving Wall had come to Rutland for two weeks. He couldnít bring himself to go until the last day. Then friends said they were going and asked him along.

"I got up there and one of those weird things happened," he said. "A guy came up with a book and asked if he could help me. I said, "No, I was just walking."

Eventually, Miner came back to the volunteer with the book. There was a FAC, he said, a Capt. Miller from Massachusetts. He was shot down and killed.

"The guy looked it up and he looked at me and said, `Itís right behind you,í ĎĎ Miner said.

When Miner became president of Chapter 601 in Bennington, he vowed to bring The Moving Wall back. He formed a committee, contacted organizations around the town, and got commitments for money needed to cover the expenses.

"The level of community support was mind boggling, unbelievable," he said.

The local newspaper did a story a day, business owners gave employees time off work to read names from The Wall, food was donated, and the National Guard provided tents.

"It was remarkable," Miner said. "I think a lot of it came from people needing to know. They came from all over the state and from Massachusetts and New York, too. Every time I turned around, there was a story happening."

Like the accident of his standing in front of the name he sought, coincidences and connections came from surprising places.

A veteran seeks a Gold Star Mother to talk about her son, his buddy from Vietnam. Two days later, a retired couple from New York ask about a name, a boy the man taught in grammar school.

Itís the same name.

A motorcycle rider comes alone. For three days, he speaks to no one. Finally, Miner and others approach and offer him coffee. He declines, saying he wants only to hear one name read.

They ask if he would like to read the name himself.

"He read it," Miner said. "As soon as he did, he rode off and we never saw him again."

Charlene Moffitt, another Vermonter and the sister of Clifton Bacon, who died in Vietnam in 1966, is the only member of her family who has touched his name. Itís high on The Wall in Washington and when she went there in 1982 for its dedication, someone showed her the ladder she could use.

"When we buried him, it was never settled," she said. "They sent him home in a sealed coffin. I didnít really believe it was true. But when I saw his name on The Wall, I thought, thatís him."

Her sister, Christine Bacon, said The Wall "brought him home."

"It was painful to see, but it confirmed it," she said. "I was only sixteen when he died. Charlene was eighteen, and it was like you couldnít believe it. It brought him home. A lot of people in the 60s said a lot of negative things. When The Wall came to Bennington, it was like saying he's a good person and heís home again. We can be proud now. He's got his own place now. We donít need to protect him anymore."

They grew up in a small town in a small state. There were 14 children in their hometown and five of them came from the Bacon family. Eight years separated the five. Clifton Bacon was 21 when he was drafted, 22 when he died.

"The Moving Wall, the real Wall, itís hard, all those people, all those guys and women, what they went through," Charlene said. "I'll always go. If I could go tomorrow, Iíd go."

The Moving Wall

The Moving Wall is a half-size replica of the Washington, D.C., Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It has been touring the country for the past 16 years.

The Wall was built by John Devitt, Norris Shears, Gerry Haver and other California veterans. It first went on display in October 1984 in Tyler, Texas.

Sponsors frequently are civic groups, schools or veterans organizations. Sponsoring usually requires months of planning by many local volunteers.

There are three Moving Walls that typically travel the country 10 months a year.

Scheduling may be arranged by sending e-mail to Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd. at JohnDV8@aol.com. , telephone: 408-288-6305 or write to Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd., 1267 Alma Court, San Jose CA 95112-5943.

More information may be found on the Internet at www.themovingwall.org.

The Wall That Heals

On Veterans Day 1996, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund unveiled a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, designed to travel to communities throughout the country.

The replica is constructed of powder-coated aluminum and is made up of 24 individual panels, each containing six columns of names.

Since its dedication, The Wall That Heals has visited more than 100 cities and towns. It made its first-ever international journey in April 1999 to the Four Provinces to honor the Irish-born casualties of the Vietnam and the Irish-Americans who served.

The Wall That Heals includes a Traveling Museum and Information Center designed to provide a comprehensive education component to the exhibit.

For more information, write to: The Wall That Heals -- The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's Traveling Wall, 1023 15th Street NW, Second Floor, Washington, DC 20005; telephone 202-393-0090. (Fax -- 202-393-0029); e-mail: vvmf@vvmf.org .

Detailed information may be found on the Internet at www.vvmf.org .


The Wall on the Web

Two Web pages go by the name "The Virtual Wall." They are separate entities with no connection to one another except for subject matter. One is produced by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the second affiliated with The Moving Wall.

Web surfers should take note of the small but critical differences in Web addresses.

The Virtual Wall (The Moving Wall) -- www.virtualwall.org 

Begun in March 1997, the Web site provides a place for memorials to the men and women named on The Wall. Visitors may leave tributes, letters, poems, photos and other memorials.

The Webmasters wish to provide an environment like The Wall itself -- one marked by dignity and respect. The Web site contains no flashy distractions, commercials and does not ask for monetary donations.

The Virtual Wall was founded by a Vietnam veteran who then enlisted an advisory board that went on to establish The Virtual Wall Association.

As a public service, Integration, Inc., of Batavia, N.Y., provides the server, disk space and bandwidth at no cost. The Webmaster is Jim Schueckler (192nd Assault Helicopter Company, Vietnam, 1969). He may be contacted at: FlewHuey@iinc.com 

The Virtual Wall (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund) -- www.thevirtualwall.org  This Web site offers visitors veteran profiles, remembrances, reunion postings, name rubbings, custom reports and more.

Originally launched on November 10, 1998, by Vice President Al Gore, the site lists more than 30 million hits and 18,000 remembrances.

Features include a monthly guest column and regular monthly chat with an expert on Vietnam, more than 1,300 prepared reports and special sections for new remembrances.

The Web page is a partnership between the Vietnam Veterans Memorial fund and Winstar Communications.


E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org


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