By David Propper and Kristen McNerney
With 58,318 names inscribed on it, the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall made its way to Putnam County last week as people from across the Hudson Valley paid their respect to the brave men and women that fought and died in such agonizing war.
For the fourth time, the Traveling Wall was in the county, placed at Veterans Memorial Park in Kent. Despite the soggy conditions from a rainstorm earlier in the day, the opening ceremony Thursday night was heavily attended with emotions running high as dozens of Vietnam War veterans were in attendance.
The Traveling Wall, which is a smaller replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in DC, was in Putnam all weekend with a closing ceremony taking place Sunday afternoon. Veterans, dignitaries, family members and friends of soldiers, and people simply hoping to observe and revere history visited the Wall for the four days it was in the region.
County Executive MaryEllen Odell said the park would be “hallowed ground” while the Traveling Wall was situated there.
She called it a “weekend of respect and gratitude” for veterans that served in the war. When those soldiers came back from the unpopular war, Odell said they did not receive the proper welcome.
“To all of you, we say welcome home and thank you,” Odell said.
One of the keynote speakers, former Yonkers mayor John Spencer, said he was blown away at the support veterans received in the county. Though not from Putnam, he said he felt like he belonged in the county.
Spencer, a platoon leader during the war, said it took him five years to visit the Wall in Washington DC and when he did, he had a breakdown. He had many friends that died during the war from his hometown and men that he served with.
“Being here has been cathartic,”Spencer said. “It took a long time to come to terms with what happened to our brothers and sisters on the Wall in back of us.”
Veterans Service Agency director Karl Rohde, the other keynote speaker, spoke about two veterans that he knew from the area and then spoke about one of his own experiences. Near the end of his speech, similar to the closing scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan, he turned to the Traveling Wall and asked, “Did I live a good life, am I a good man?”
Rohde, who is a Silver Star recipient, said too many Vietnam veterans dwell on the negative on how they were treated when they came home. Rohde stressed he focuses on the positive.
“There are nice things that happened to Vietnam veterans and we have to look for them and we have to think about them,” Rohde said.
Sunday’s closing ceremonies included a performance by the Hudson Valley Council Band, a Boy Scouts affiliate. Director Althea Richards spoke of the importance of preservation. “It brings history alive,” she said.
Throughout the weekend, volunteers read names of all those listed on the wall. Readers included 14-year-olds Rory Charbonneau and Amanda Shkreli of Girl Scout Troop #1067 from Brewster. The girls also took part in tracing the names of the 12 individuals from Putnam County who died in action.
For some, it is more than just a monument. Brenda Robitaille said, “they’re not just names, they were people.”
Vietnam veterans expressed the peace that the wall has brought them. Rob Rottcamp, the senior vice commander of VFW 672 said that in Washington, the scene of the Memorial Wall was solemn and sad. He stated that in the Wall’s exhibition in the park is different in that it sends a hopeful message and creates an idea of “life after.”
“There’s something about being up here in the country”, Rottcamp said.
Joan Russell and Carol Kraus, president and treasurer of VFW Post 1374, respectively, were impressed with the number of people who showed up over the weekend, especially at Thursday’s opening ceremonies. They estimated hundreds were in attendance and agreed it was a very emotional weekend.
Toward the end of the closing ceremony, Art Hanley, commander of the Brewster VFW Post 672 and deputy director of the Veterans Service Agency, read the 12 names of Putnam natives lost in Vietnam.
Everyone was instructed to face the wall as Taps was played. Prayers were also said. Brewster resident Jack Gress, who could not serve in the Vietnam War, but contributes to many veteran causes, was still on the planning committee for the wall. His brother served in Vietnam though, and has several friends on the Wall. Gress said his brother would be at the Wall in the middle of the night to reflect and find his friends.
“Very, very touching,” Gress said. “Definitely very emotional.”
Putnam Valley resident and Vietnam veteran Robert Ulrich Sr. said to see the Wall is still emotional, noting there are 58,000 of his friends inscribed. He feels he’s able to make contact with those fallen soldiers when he sees the Wall.
“I salute them,” Ulrich said.
Mahopac resident and New York Riders member Robert Ferguson, who served in Vietnam, said he has two friends that are on the Wall.
“A lot of us made it back and a lot of us didn’t,” he said. “So we came here for respect and remembrance.”