BY RICHARD CURREY
Last February John Thomstatter, secretary of VVA Chapter 1036 in The Villages, Florida, read a short piece on VVA’s Web Weekly. It was about a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund effort to collect a photo for every individual memorialized on The Wall.
The photosalong with personal details including hometown, branch of service, and date of casualtywere to become part of the Wall of Faces, an exhibit that eventually will be housed in the VVMF Education Center in Washington, D.C. (The in-progress exhibit is currently online as a virtual Wall of Faces at vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces)
Thomstatter read that a search team in Hawaii had located photos of everyone from that state whose name appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and contributed those photos to the Wall of Faces. “I was intrigued,” he said. “I wondered about my adopted home state of Floridahow many pictures of fallen vets from Florida had been collected?”
Thomstatter called VVMF headquarters and learned more about the plan to preserve the legacies of the Vietnam War dead by locating a photo of each person whose name appears on The Wall. He found out that photos of more than seven hundred of Florida’s dead had not yet been located When he asked who was spearheading the effort in Florida, he was told: “Nobody.”
Thomstatter took that back to Chapter 1036 (the largest VVA chapter in Florida and ninth largest in the nation), suggesting that they take a leadership role in coordinating the Wall of Faces campaign in Florida.
There was immediate buy-in from the chapter’s officers and members.
“We reached out to the Florida State Council,” Thomstatter said, “explained the mission, and asked for help in engaging the thirty other Florida VVA chapters. The entire effort quickly gathered steam.”
VVMF provided a list of all of Florida’s KIAs, organized by county. Chapter 1036 then created a search procedure document, an extensive battery of references and techniques to facilitate the often-convoluted searches for pictures and information about people whose lives ended as long as fifty years agomany of whom did not live long enough to leave much in the way of personal history that might easily turn up.
Thomstatter said the first step in locating a photo begins with building a unique profile document with basic identifying information. That, in turn, helps to isolate potential search resource areas. Given the youth of most Vietnam War casualties, Thomstatter recommended high school yearbooks, local newspaper obituaries, and basic training graduation books as good starting points.
“Public libraries and county historical societies are also excellent resources,” Thomstatter said. “Then there are various online archives, public records repositories, and other Internet resources.”
On February 25 the first missing photo was found by Art Yeaman of Chapter 1059 in Middleburg, Florida: a picture of Otis Parker, an Army Ranger killed in Quang Nam Province in 1970.
By the end of May more than 10 percent of Florida’s missing photographs were accounted for. “There are fifty-seven counties in Florida,” Thomstatter said, “and fourteen now have all their names accounted for. Our researchers across the state have located over 140 photos since February.”
The fact that Chapter 1036 has so effectively enlisted other Florida chapters speaks to a key aspect of the Wall of Faces campaign in the Sunshine State: It’s a cooperative effort, driven by a growing statewide network of search teams, all collaborating behind a shared passion to match every name on The Wall to the face behind it.
“This is very much a grassroots effort,” said VVMF spokesperson Heidi Zimmerman. “Gathering photos and collecting personal details about service members are activities that have been picked up by volunteers all across the country. We have veterans involved in this work who have made it their primary goal to collect all the photos of fallen service members from their hometown, county, or state. And we’ve had lots of local newspapers jump in and help, running stories about the Wall of Faces and the search for these photos so their hometown heroes will never be forgotten.”
Thomstatter said that several search efforts in Florida are making a difference. “There’s Chuck Reed with Chapter 594 on the southwestern Gulf Coast. And Forest Hope with Chapter 1092, working the northwestern part of Florida. Chuck and Forest and their chapters are just two examples of the kind of commitment we’re seeing here in Florida. It reflects just how important we believe this effort is. This goes beyond simply putting a face with a name. It helps us remember and honor our lost comrades in a very real and important way.”
Seventeen states have located all the photos for their contingents on The Wall: Maryland, Nebraska, Washington, Colorado, Alaska, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
“Nationally, we’ve collected 47,941 photos,” Zimmerman said. “There are 58,315 names on The Wall so we’re very close to breaking the 10,000 mark for photos left to find.”
Once fundraising and construction is complete for the future VVMF Education Center, the Wall of Faces will be displayed in a striking two-story museum space. (See an artist’s rendering of what the Education Center and the Wall of Faces area will look like at vvmf.org/explore-the-center)
The Florida photo search could take about two years to complete, said Thomstatter. “And we know that as the number of photos left to find gets smaller, the search will get harder.” But Thomstatter believes that the project is its own reward. “This has been inspiring and very rewarding work. Everywhere we turn, people are eager to help.”
Every time a name from The Wall is researched and another photo is found, Thomstatter said, “we see and feel again the magnitude of loss to comrades, families, and communities. VVA members all have a vested interest in finding every photo of our lost battlefield brothers.”
He encouraged every VVA chapter and state council not yet involved in the Wall of Faces to consider joining the effort, and offered the resources developed by Chapter 1036 to any who need help in mounting a search team for their state, county, or city.
“The goal through all of this is to further preserve the legacy of those who sacrificed all in Vietnam,” Zimmerman said. “There is a face and a story of a life cut short behind every one of the names on The Wall and we want to make sure they are never forgotten.”
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