April 6, 2019 — History lessons can come in many forms. One way is to read a book or watch a film that depicts events from an earlier time. The most common way that students learn about history is by listening to a lecture from a teacher or reading pages from a textbook. For many students, it isn’t always a compelling combination for learning, but that presentation of facts was replaced this week by a thought-provoking granite tribute to those who died in a war that took place half a century ago and half a world away — a tribute that students could see, touch and experience for themselves.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., draws millions of visitors a year to look at its polished granite surface, covered with the names of those that died during the controversial conflict. A three-quarter scale replica of the memorial wall currently stands in the field behind Siuslaw Middle School, offering an up close and personal history lesson to anyone interested to stop there until it closes Sunday afternoon, April 7.
The replica of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was brought to Florence by Spruce Point Assisted Living Facility and its director of marketing, Kim Pruitt, who is also the daughter of a Vietnam veteran.
“My dad was in Vietnam for several years, and he didn’t talk about it much with me. I was the baby of the family, but the one thing he did tell me was when he got off the plane, he was not welcomed home and he was actually spit on,” Pruitt said. “So, one of my goals, when I found out we had the opportunity to bring the wall here, was to finally welcome all veterans back home.”
This sense of finally being appreciated for the time they spent defending the nation is a welcome shift from the reception received by veterans after returning from the war in Vietnam.
For Florence resident Tim Sapp, his service in Vietnam was not a subject he discussed with outsiders until long after his service had ended.
“When I got back, my family treated me great, but the rest of the world wasn’t too nice. In this day and age, you have a lot more people thanking us for our service,” Sapp said. “It must have been 20 years before anyone thanked me. It’s a lot different now than it was then.”
Sapp had first seen the traveling wall in Kentucky and was involved in bringing an earlier model of the wall to Florence. He remembers the reactions that were created when he first saw the granite memorial.
“The first time the wall came to town it was an emotional experience. I was a little more prepared this time,” he said. “The thing I remember was all the guys that came and pulled up in their cars, but they couldn’t walk up to the wall because of the emotional part of it.
“I’d go out and talk to them, and a lot of these guys would just break down and cry. Since then, I’ve talked more freely about my experiences. But until that point you didn’t tell people you were a Vietnam vet.”
Paul Gargis is one of the leaders of the unofficial local veterans’ group known as the “Band of Brothers,” which assisted with the presentation of the wall in Florence. Gargis and his grizzled group of veterans represent all five military branches and many of them will serve as guides during the weekend.
Gargis served two tours in Vietnam and says the interactions he has these days with the public are much different than when he returned from Southeast Asia.
“It is very important to me and other vets in town to have the wall come here. Every day I wear clothes that have some military connection. I served two tours in Vietnam… ’68 and ’69 with the 25th Infantry Division, then in ’71 and ’72 on an advisory team. When I returned, I never talked about my service or my time in Vietnam,” Gargis said after pausing to check his emotions. “It is a lot different now, even young people will come up to us to thank us for our service, and that is something I never thought I would see in my lifetime.”
The decision on where to place the replica was made with the idea in mind that the wall would not only heal but educate as well.
For Siuslaw School District Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak, his approval for the visit was partially based on the opportunity for his students to learn in a manner which is outside the norm.
“Giving the students an opportunity to see the Vietnam Memorial Wall is important because it takes history from more than a topic in a book or a television program into reality for them,” he said. “Being able to interact with veterans who served during the war, while they are on site, plus being able to engage with members of the community, allows them to see how much this means to that generation. It is something students can only get when you talk with people who lived through it.”
The wall will be in town throughout the weekend.
Pruitt said she is appreciative that the community has contributed to the costs associated with bringing the replica to Florence. She also pointed out that Spruce Point was able to contribute to the effort, thanks to the generosity of sponsors and area residents.
“We had a garage sale at Spruce Point — we have one every year — and this year we decided we would have it little sooner and put all the money raised into bringing the wall to Florence. The wall costs $10,000 and that doesn’t include the insurance and renting the portable toilets. So, we raised just over $1,200 and that put us over the top,” Pruitt said. “I really want to say we couldn’t have done this without the support of major donations from sponsors and the public.”
The volunteers and veterans manning the wall during the visit want the community to know the wall is available for viewing throughout the weekend, 24 hours a day, until closing ceremonies tomorrow afternoon at 2 p.m.
The decision to have that type of access is intentional, according to Pruitt.
“At night, we expect to get some of the visitors that still have a hard time dealing with the wall or seeing it. So, we have it open 24 hours a day so people can still see it, even if they don’t want to be around other people. They can take their time and make their way to it and have their time alone,” she said.
Two events are part of the wall’s visit. The first is a remembrance ceremony, which is open to the public today at 1 p.m., and the closing ceremonies on Sunday.
(Editor’s Note: The significance and public impact of The Wall That Heals within the community has had a ripple effect that continues well after the deadline for today’s edition. For that reason, we will be following today’s article with more coverage in Wednesday’s edition, which will include personal stories shared by local veterans regarding the wall and their experiences in Vietnam.)