“It's about respect—respecting the names of the people on this wall.”
That, followed by a long period of reflective silence, is how Vietnam veteran Tom Burke summed up both the wall and his participation on the Honor Guard standing watch non-stop over the Vietnam Moving Wall.
The wall is a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and it's on display at the American Legion post in New Lenox through Monday. The memorial honors the more than 58,000 Americans killed or missing in Vietnam. The names of the casualties are listed by date they were killed or went missing.
Burke's group was the first of many taking four hour shifts “standing post” at two positions along the wall; participants stood watch for 15 minutes with 30 minute breaks in-between.
Other volunteers made reference to 9/11 and service people finally “returning to a grateful, thankful nation” after seeing active duty. The word most spoken though was honor.
“It was an honor ... really and truly,” said Shelly Fox, referring to escorting the wall into town as part of a large processional; Fox also took several turns reading names aloud that are on the wall. “It's not a feeling you can explain, you have to live it to understand it. It's a wonderful feeling—a lot people came together to make this what it is.”
Among the many others that involved was Dave “Snake” Nelson, who was part of the Warrior Watch Riders motorcycle group that also escorted the wall into town.
“During the escort, cars pulled over from the oncoming traffic and waited until we passed because they could see that something special was happening.
“Then when we got here, to be able to assemble some of the panels on the wall, I didn't expect that; it was really quite an honor. When you reflect on the names that are on there and what it means, to be able to be a part of this was really an honor.”
The Warrior Watch Riders group also does escorts to welcome home soldiers (even decades after the fact), see them off and they participate in Honor Flights. Those are trips to take veterans to the actual memorial, and others, in Washington D.C., for no cost to the veteran.
It is those Honor Flights, as well as the replica wall, that are a stirring if not long overdue tribute for Burke. “Those that survived Vietnam, we didn't come home to a very nice reception. I'm glad to see that that turned around. It's hard to put into words.”
Burke served with the U.S. Navy Seabees from November 1965 to December 1968 with two active tours in Vietnam. A retired U.S. Marshall's Officer, he now serves regularly with the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery's Memorial Squad on their “Honor Guard” that is present for the funeral of any serviceman or spouse. Burke has a couple of friends on the wall, he said.
“When you went in the military, you've given the country a blank check,” Burke analogized. “Sometimes you can fill it in for an amount and sometimes you have to fill it in with your life and the people whose names are on that wall gave up their lives; that's what their blank check was.”
Mike Sadelco, also with the Warrior Watch Riders, was present and thankful for those personal checks. “It's a way to show respect for them, to get what they deserve. Without our veterans, we wouldn't be here right now ... we wouldn't be able to do what we do.”
Fox immediately followed up, “It's a way to serve those that served us.”
As a side note, unfortunately not enough people felt the same way. When I returned the very first evening to get some night time photos, there were a smattering of people along the wall – including the Ridgewood Cycle Association standing post at the honor guard positions. However, it was eerily quiet as there was no one reading from the list of names on the wall. They had run out of volunteers to read.