Made up of two 246-foot by 9-inch long black granite walls, polished to a high finish, and etched with the names of the 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in service during the Vietnam War, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. is hallowed ground.
Visiting the monument can be a profoundly emotional experience for veterans, but not all Vietnam veterans get the opportunity. Of the 18 members of Baytown’s Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 922, six have never made the trip.
When chapter leadership learned of that, they decided to pay the way for all six members, which would have cost the group about $4,500. But all that changed once the Rotary Club of Baytown caught wind of it.
“I know they were going to send them because they were going to do whatever it took to send these six individuals, but we were very excited that we were able to help them achieve that goal,” Rotary President Sheila Crawford said. “This was our chance to say thank you for all that they’ve done because they risked it all.”
Come National Vietnam War Veterans Day on March 29, all six will finally get their chance to pay homage to their fallen brothers.
“I want to go to see the reaction of the six guys that have never been there,” John Saenz, a Vietnam veteran and member of Baytown Vietnam vets chapter, said. “Like the reaction I had the first time I went. It was very moving.”
Last time Saenz visited the wall he found the names of veterans from his hometown of Edinburg.
“When I found their names, I thanked them for their service,” he said.
To get the veterans to Washington D.C., Rotary is sponsoring three veterans while the Baytown Lions Club is sponsoring two. Another civic group might sponsor the sixth, but sponsorship has not been confirmed.
“We never expected anyone to fund this trip and send these veterans, who otherwise could not go on their own,” Rosendo Lopez, president of VVA Chapter 922, said. “It’s a great thing. We’re really blessed to have civic organizations like these.”
To sponsor the veterans, it costs about $850 per person for flight and lodging.
“The trip for the Vietnam veterans is a very special project and the Lions club wants to show their support for these veterans,” said Sarah Baldwin, president of the Lions Club.
The Vietnam War was a long, costly armed conflict that pitted the communist regime of North Vietnam and its southern allies, known as the Viet Cong, against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States.
The war began in 1954, after the rise to power of Ho Chi Minh and his communist Viet Minh party in North Vietnam. More than 3 million, including the 58,000 memorialized Americans, were killed in the war — more than half were Vietnamese civilians.
During the war, Lopez served three years in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division.
“I was a tank driver and gunner,” Lopez said.
Saenz also served three years in the 3rd Marine Infantry Division in a role he described as a “grunt.”
“I was ‘Plain Jane’ Marine Corps grunt,” Saenz said with a smile on his face. “If I had to go back, I would do it again.”
Visited by over 3 million people each year, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is best known as a reflective, contemplative place and the atmosphere is intended to be protective and quiet.
When the 18 local Vietnam Veterans get to Washington, D.C., they will place a wreath at the wall and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.