The Vietnam War was long, horrible, and divided our nation. Those who served in the military then were not treated kindly when they returned. Some of us served during that period and returned to civilian life without much notice.
Others returned scared or disabled with physical and mental wounds.
But more than 56,000 of the soldiers, sailors, marines, coast guardsmen and air force service members did not survive the conflict.
The “Wall That Heals” was displayed last week at the Berry Lynnhurst Cemetery in Fountain City, (Tennessee) and among the names are seventy-six men from Knoxville.
Beginning in 1997 the names of those wounded in Vietnam and who died later of their wounds have been added to the wall.
My thoughts turned to two incidents not related to Knoxville but which mean a lot to me as do several names on the wall.
First, although few know it, seven Coast Guardsmen were killed in Vietnam and five of those names are on the wall. I was Coast Guard and have been surprised to find that very few Americans know that branch of the military was serving there.
But the USCG was there, offshore in cutters and on the Mekong River doing patrol. Two of the men were killed while on river patrol, mistakenly gunned by the U. S. Air Force because there was no radio communication between the boat and the planes. Some were killed aboard the ship they were on, which they served and one Coast Guard pilot was killed while flying on a bombing mission with a Navy pilot.
The name that drew me to the original Wall in Washington, D.C. years ago is that of Lt. John Michael Cole. He and I were friends when we both were high school students in Kentucky. I lost touch with him and a lot of other friends who served when my family moved out of state.
Mike Cole was a great guy, played in our high school band, and was a friendly and outgoing young man. He attended the University of Kentucky and Cumberland College. By the time he was killed in action, in 1972, he had earned the rank of lieutenant.
Cole was a navigator aboard an Air Force plane and was killed by ground gunfire. The Williamsburg, Kentucky, native was married at the time of his death and his daughter was born one month later.
I didn’t hear of Mike’s death for a few years as my journalism profession moved me and my family around the country but when I returned to the area it struck me like it was something I should have known. His family ran a small business there and I went by a couple of times to visit them. I still think of my days and the many friends I had, several who served during the conflict.
Four other young men from that town, where I lived for 10 years as a child, became causalities of Vietnam.
The “Wall That Heals” was scheduled to come down and move on yesterday but, while it stood there people who had visited the original wall and those who have not had to opportunity to viewed the names of those almost forgotten men and women.
On the wall are 276 Native Americans, 120 men of foreign birth, 25,000 who were 20 years or younger, 17,000 who were married, 1,448 who were killed on the last day of their Vietnam tour, and 8 women of the 7,484 women who served there.
The Wall That Heals was sponsored by The Vietnam Veterans of America, Capt. Bill Robinson Chapter 1078, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, Berry Lynnhurst Cemetery and East Tennessee PBS, and the Wall That Heals is a creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The structure’s schedule called for it to next appear in Burnsville, N.C., and then six other cities this year.
Society Editor’s note:
The Wall That Heals is a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. The replica was in place in Tennessee on October 4 through October 8 and is scheduled for placement in different locations in the U.S. throughout the remainder of the year.
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About the writer:
My friend on the Wall that Heals was written by Mike Steely, formerly of Williamsburg, who is currently a writer for the Knoxville Focus. The article ran in the Knoxville Focus on October 9 and was spotted by a Williamsburg resident who brought it to my attention because of the interest and she and many other people in Whitley County knew one or both men.
Mike Steely is a relative of the Steely family who ran Paul Steely Ford in Williamsburg. He was born in Jellico, and spent about 10 years living in Williamsburg, then later moved to Florida where he met his wife, graduated and joined the U.S. Coast Guard for which he served six years.