An emotion-choked crowd honored the service of veterans Friday at a traveling exhibit of the Vietnam Memorial Wall at Hayden City Park.
Hundreds of people turned out for the opening ceremonies of The Wall That Heals, then stayed to browse through the names of more than 58,000 fallen and missing soldiers from the Vietnam conflict.
John Rice knelt to touch the names of men he knew who died in the war.
“They touched me,” the 65-year old Vietnam vet said simply.
Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the half-size traveling exhibit is designed to separate the controversy and anti-war protests over the long-running conflict in Southeast Asia from the sacrifices made by American soldiers.
“Many soldiers did not receive a warm welcome home,” said Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin, who spoke at the opening ceremony. “We as a country need to learn from that.”
A separate exhibit at the park honors more recent sacrifices, including the victims of 9/11 and military personnel who died in the Iraq wars and in Afghanistan.
Rice, who grew up in Redding, Calif., enlisted in the Army at 19. “I couldn’t afford to go to college, and I wanted to get off a cattle ranch,” he said. “I grew up – a lot.”
Rice spent nearly three years in Vietnam and was wounded. The experience still influences the Post Falls resident.
“I came to realize that every day there wasn’t an enemy shooting at me was a good day,” he said.
The Wall That Heals’ stop in North Idaho was sponsored by the Kootenai County Veterans Council and the city of Hayden. Its presence brought back powerful memories for Leonard Olson, of Coeur d’Alene.
Olson was in the Army in Vietnam during 1967 and 1968, but he missed the Tet Offensive – the surprise attack by the North Vietnamese during the Lunar New Year festival. Five members of his squadron were killed.
Thinking of that time remains difficult for Olson, even after 45 years have passed. “You’re a squad of seven and only two of you survive,” he said.
Though he’s seen the wall before, Olson has never hunted for the names of his fallen colleagues.
“It’s still that hard,” he said. “If I don’t do it this week, I’ll do it next year when I visit the memorial in Washington, D.C.”
Kim Waddle, who lives near Houston, visited the traveling wall with friends from Hayden.
“Seeing things in print or in pictures makes it more real, more final,” Waddle said.
Waddle graduated from high school in 1975, the year South Vietnam surrendered. Her dad was a Navy vet, and her family kept up on the news and often talked about the war.
For several years, Waddle wore an MIA bracelet engraved with a name of a missing soldier. She never learned if he returned home.
Some of the Vietnam War memories recounted Friday had happy endings. Karen Roetter, of Hayden, was in third grade when her dad left to fight in Vietnam. He was gone for two years but returned safely.
Roetter was at the wall’s opening ceremonies with her parents, Vern and Arlene Stambaugh.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” she said.