“It's good to remember where our liberties come from,” said Nicole Wilson, a veteran of the Navy, who brought her children to the ceremony for the first time Monday. The daughter of an Air Force veteran, she said she thought it was an important idea to pass on to her children and for them to see the older veterans in attendance firsthand.
The crowd gathered Monday for the ceremony at Anniston’s Centennial Memorial Park, recently designated by the Alabama Legislature as the future home of the state’s official memorials for those killed in the line of duty in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or as firefighters or police officers within the state.
The site is already the official state memorial for the Vietnam War. According to Ken Rollins, who helped make that official recognition happen nearly 20 years ago, it took approximately two years to get the design, funds and construction completed for the initial wall that stands there today. He said the process for the new memorials will kick off sometime around June, when the Centennial Memorial Committee can meet to discuss its next steps.
The members of the honor guard of Chapter 502 of the Vietnam Veterans of America conducted a fallen comrade ceremony to represent those who didn’t make it out of battle. The line of six uniformed men marched in front of the wall naming Alabama’s Vietnam dead. One member planted a rifle barrel-down into a stand, and each man subsequently added one item -- a flak vest and pair of boots at the base, dog tags hanging from the gun’s handle, a helmet balanced at the butt of the gun, and finally, a rose placed upright in one boot -- until their construction stood as a memorial to those who never made it home.
The crowd was silent as the honor guard constructed the memorial, an occasional cough from the crowd drawing a contrast to the reverence hanging over the park. A line of friends, family and classmates of those lost broke the silence as, one by one, each laid a rose at the feet of the surrogate soldier and named loved ones whose memories they honored. The group—from the very young to the elderly—called names of the dead who fought in conflicts from World War I through Iraq and Afghanistan.
“These names are not just out of the phone book,” Rollins said of the memorial walls, reminding the crowd that each one represents hurt, tears, heartache and loneliness for the families left behind.
Pam Arrington is the sister of Allen Ray Chaffin, who died in combat during the Vietnam War on Mother’s Day 1967. She told the crowd that her mother, Evelyn Kilmartin, turned 90 this year and has now been grieving the loss of her son for half of her life.
Donna Butner laid a rose in memory of her husband, her father and a number of family members who served in the nation’s armed forces and reminded those present how important it is to remember the fallen.
“I’m someone that’s struggled in life, had to do without someone to rear your children,” she said after Monday’s ceremony. “It’s a terrible sacrifice, but you still instill it in your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that we guard these freedoms or we won’t have them.”
Butner, whose husband died in an accident just before the start of Vietnam, said she comes to every ceremony she knows about. She said it’s important to continue to have such events because people “have no concept of who had paid the price,” she said. “People drive up and down the highway by that and never give a thought to what it is and what it means.”
Nicole Wilson’s 13-year-old son, Alexander, said he could see that the veterans at the ceremony “still remember what it means to them."
“They knew what they had to do and they did it," he said. "It’s a part of them.”
Star Staff Writer Paige Rentz: 352-235-3564. On Twitter: @PRentz_Star.