|Vietnam Veterans of America|
A FACE TO EVERY NAME:
The Vietnam Veteran Memorial Fund has long made it a goal to embody the spirit of the design of The Wall — the idea that behind each name so carefully inscribed, a life was lived. This led in 2001 to the creation of the Wall of Faces project, with the ambitious mission of finding a photograph to go with every name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In August of 2022, they succeeded.
“Every time we hit a new milestone – 200 left, 100 left, and so on – we celebrated,” Tim Tetz, VVMF’s Director of Outreach, said in an interview. “But we never thought we’d find a photo for every name.”
The project began in 2001, but didn’t make much headway until late 2009 when a more-focused effort was established. The process has been sort of like solving a jigsaw puzzle piece-by-piece, except there are 58,281 pieces, and each one must be hunted down individually. Most of the photos were assembled by a group of dedicated volunteers. One volunteer, Janna Hoehn, joined the puzzle hunt in 2011 through a series of coincidental events.
“The Vietnam War encompassed my high school years,” Hoehn said in a recent interview. “The way vets were treated upon their return has never left me.”
This lingering impact led her to visit The Wall while in the nation’s capital. Despite not knowing a single name, Hoehn was amazed at the impact the black granite wall had upon her. On a whim, she decided to do a rubbing of a name chosen at random.
Upon returning home, Hoehn began to research the name. After discovering a photo but failing to find any family contacts, she put the rubbing and picture in a scrapbook and forgot about them.
By chance, Hoehn saw a news story in 2011 about the then-titled “Faces Never Forgotten” effort, which sought to match a photo with every name on The Wall. Hoehn immediately thought of her rubbing and the image she saved, and submitted the photo to the VVMF. Not long after, founder and then-President of the VVMF Jan Scruggs asked her if she wanted to join the project as a volunteer. Hoehn started with the 42 names from Maui, the Hawaiian island she now calls home. She began her search at libraries where she scoured obituaries and high school yearbooks.
After six months of searching, she had a photo for all the Maui names. Hoehn commissioned a banner that displayed photos of the 42 men from Maui who died in Vietnam, and took it around the island. Meeting the families and learning their stories turned into a special experience.
“It was such a wonderful process,” Hoehn said. “I knew I couldn’t be done with this.”
A PAINSTAKING PROCESS
Hoehn then decided to search for photographs of men from her hometown of Hemet, California, which grew to a few more surrounding towns, and ultimately, the entire state. As she continued, Hoehn learned the best ways to get the best results. Reaching out to local newspapers, for example, often proved fruitful. They were usually quick to jump on publishing a story on the Wall of Faces photo hunt.
Those local newspaper articles included Hoehn’s contact information, which led to more families and friends reaching out to her with photos or information. Some of them were interested in joining the volunteer effort, though the daunting task could be intimidating. Many who were eager to join at first didn’t stay on for long.
“About one percent who reached out to me actually stuck with it,” Hoehn noted. Those who could handle the painstaking process kept at it, and she wound up with a team of 12 people who shared her interest in trying to solve this mighty puzzle.
One of these volunteers was the widow of a Vietnam veteran who helped complete Oklahoma’s list of names. Another was the wife of a Vietnam War veteran, who helped finish Arkansas. After these volunteers finished their home states, they wanted to continue to help. They stuck with her and, “Now I’ve got lifelong friends,” Hoehn said.
Though Hoehn and her team were far from the only volunteers working on the project, the story of her efforts exemplifies the tireless spirit of the many individuals who contributed to the Wall of Faces.
“There were thousands who contributed photos, maybe a hundred who found more than a few, but volunteers as dedicated as Janna were rare,” Tim Tetz said.
In the end, Hoehn helped finish 28 states.
The final photo was discovered on August 5, 2022, by a volunteer who asked to remain anonymous. “When the last photo came in, it was wonderful to see the fruition of all these peoples’ labors come to bear,” Tetz said.
The seemingly impossible feat was accomplished, and Hoehn was elated. Her time searching for photos may have concluded, but the memories from her journey will never leave her. She remembers many bittersweet, emotional phone calls to ask families for photos and information, and the many amazing people she met along the way.
Even though this major milestone was reached, there is still more work to be done. Unfortunately, some of the photos are not great, and a search for better photos to replace them is underway. Finding one photo per name is a start, but VVMF wants to gather as many as they can.
“None of us want to be known by just one photo,” Tetz said. “The more photos we can get for an individual, the better we can tell their story.”
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial changed the landscape for how the nation designs and constructs war veterans memorials and other events that cause mass loss of life. The Wall singled out every individual who died in the war, and in doing so, helped everyone who sees The Wall comprehend the true cost of war.
The completion of the Wall of Faces helps convey the intent behind the memorial’s design: It’s not just an encompassing list of names, it’s a recounting of the lives of men and women who died in service to their country. Putting a face with each name is an amazing feat.
You can see the Wall of Faces at https://WWW.VVMF.ORG/WALL-OF-FACES
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