May 24, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 21

Veterans erect 'Moving Wall' at Fort Seward

Memorial Day will be a little different in Haines this year.

Residents and veterans who turn out at the annual observance for the nation’s fallen soldiers can also pay their respects at “The Moving Wall,” a half-sized replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The wall is shaped like a “V” and displays the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in the conflict. Vietnam-era veterans helped put it up Tuesday at the Fort Seward Parade Grounds. A special ceremony at the site is set for 9 a.m. on Memorial Day.

Events surrounding the holiday will include a veterans’ church service 10:30 a.m. Sunday at the Haines Baptist Church and placing of flags on grave sites at Jones Point Cemetery at 5 p.m. Sunday. All are invited.

“The main reason people want to come out and see it is a good sector of this country are survivors of Vietnam or had family or friends in Vietnam. There are still a lot of people who know somebody on that wall and will want to go see their names there,” said Bill McRoberts, commander of the local American Legion Post.

Vietnam was a major event in the nation’s recent history, McRoberts said. “It brought on a lot of political changes, including how we look at war.”

For many in Haines and Klukwan, the wall is a tribute to fallen comrades, McRoberts said. A high percentage of men from Haines – and an even higher percentage from Klukwan – totaling 39, served in Vietnam, he said.

All those from the Chilkat Valley who served in Vietnam survived, but many don’t talk about their experience, he said. That the late Larry Albecker held a Bronze Star from Vietnam wasn’t widely known until he died, McRoberts said.

“They’re very protective of it. They just don’t talk about it,” he said.

McRoberts is hoping the memorial’s visit will get veterans talking and perhaps share a little more of their military histories. Recording such history is a role of the American Legion, but one that has fallen by the side in recent years.

McRoberts uses photos to create collages of service he hopes to mount at the American Legion Hall on Second Avenue. “We’re starting to pull some pretty good stories together of what these guys did (but) Vietnam veterans are the hardest. We want to let people know how many people from here went and did their part. We have a lot of patriotism in this town. We really do.”

One of the reasons for the mobile memorial is to provide the experience of the monument to citizens who can’t make it to Washington, D.C. to see the original. McRoberts is among them.

A former first sergeant in the Army who spent 23 years in the military, McRoberts lived a short car ride from the monument for three years when he taught military science at West Virginia University.

“I just never got the time to go out there. During the school season, I was teaching. In the summer, it was all training. It was non-stop for three years. So I’m looking forward to seeing it myself,” he said.

Gene Strong is one of Klukwan’s vets looking forward to seeing the wall. Strong has seen the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. “It’s impressive,” he said, although on his visit he didn’t have time enough to look through all the names.

The moving wall will be guarded around-the-clock and will be staffed by hosts who will answer questions. McRoberts said wreaths will be placed at the wall, and asked that residents not bring flowers or other remembrances to leave there.

It’s at least the second visit of the moving monument to Haines. According to Internet sources, there are at least three such copies of the memorial and at least two on a traveling circuit.

The wall was here previously in 1997. Joe Fields of Fairbanks, who helped organize this visit, said it may be the monument’s last trip to Alaska.

Veteran John Devitt, who brought the monument to Haines this week, conceived of a moving wall 31 years ago after witnessing the dedication of the Washington, D.C. monument. Donations came generously when he started on the project, he said. He’s been traveling with it each summer for 29 years.

“I was from California and I knew a lot of guys who couldn’t make it to D.C. and started thinking of a way for them to see it,” he said this week while working with local vets to assemble it.

Getting to meet and talk with other Vietnam veterans is a fringe benefit to the project, he said. “As old as everybody’s getting, people still come out to help.”