75 turn out for The Wall That Heals ceremony

benw@ledger-enquirer.comApril 4, 2013 

The deputy garrison commander at Fort Benning remembered his Vietnam commander Thursday during a ceremony opening The Wall That Heals at the Columbus Public Library.

George Steuber, a retired Army colonel and deputy garrison commander on post, said Maj. Calvin Gore told him it was time to leave Vietnam in 1971 after he had served 39 months in the war. Gore apparently didn’t listen to the words he gave Steuber, a young special forces soldier.

A year later, Gore was killed in Pleiku. His name is among more than 58,000 men and women on the half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that arrived in Columbus on Tuesday. The display on the front lawn of the library is the culminating event of the Big Read, a program that encourages the community to read in a month-long series of events. The wall leaves Columbus at 5 p.m. Sunday.

Steuber said Gore, of Augusta, Ga., was brought back to Georgia and there are other names on the wall as well. He reminded the approximately 75 people gathered in the library auditorium of the soldiers still missing in action.

“They are absolute heroes who fought for this country,” Steuber said. “They gave everything and they are still missing in action. Think about them when you look at that wall. There is still a debt out there.”

With Jan Scruggs, who conceived the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, looking on, Steuber said he was stunned when he looked at the wall that wasn’t without some controversy. “When they first built the monument, it was the scar on the wall,” Steuber said. “That scar is a healing scar. It is hard to approach that monument and not feel raw emotions that bring tears to your eyes.”

Since the monument was dedicated in 1982, Scruggs said the wall has had more than 100 million visitors. The idea for the monument came in 1979 after he saw “Deer Hunter,” a movie that focused on the Vietnam War’s impact on the lives of working class steel workers. At the time, Scruggs had written several research papers on what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder and was somewhat of an expert. A Vietnam veteran who served with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in 1969-70, he had articles published on military medicine and even testified before Congress. “Ultimately, I just started the effort,” he said of the memorial. “Sometimes when you start the effort, you get enough people behind you.”

Scruggs noted the support he received from President Jimmy Carter and U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia in getting legislation passed for the memorial. An education center is the next project with the wall, Scruggs said. The center will teach people about the sacrifices of soldiers and look at some of the 14,000 items left at the wall. “We will see very important photographs of those who gave their lives in the Vietnam War,” he said.

For Zema Laird, it was her third visit to the traveling wall after visiting the monument twice in Washington.

“I think it’s a wonderful reminder to everyone about how the military was treated when they came home from Vietnam, the progress we’ve made since then and the honor we show our troops now,” she said. “I think that is one of the things it represents. It represents so many things, so many things.”

Laird lost her husband, Jerry Laird, at age 33 in 1969 while he was serving with the 4th Infantry Division. She told Scruggs the wall is like a church altar for her.

“It’s gives people a place to go and lay down what they carried around for so long,” she said. “It gave them a place to go.”

Her visits to the memorial in Washington became a little easier each time. “The first time I went I just could hardly approach the wall,” she said. “It was almost like when I looked at the wall, it was a person and over 58,000 people came off that wall and were coming straight at me in their boots and fatigues. I stood there kind of froze.

“I finally approached it but I never could touch it the first time I went there,” she said. “Then the second time, it was easy.”

Bobby Thomas, 67, wore the Purple Heart he received in Vietnam in 1968-69. He knows at least five soldiers from Columbus on the wall. As a squad leader in the U.S. Marines, he recalled how I Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines fought all day and night in Khe Sanh when camps were overrun by the enemy. “I survived that,” said Thomas, whose unit was dubbed “The Walking Dead.”

The ceremony ended with a moment of silence for all of the fallen and the playing of taps.

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