JACKSONVILLE, N.C. --
He stood oblivious to those around him as he focused intently on the glass in front of him. His eyes darted left to right, mouthing the various names he came across until he suddenly stopped at one, staring at it intently. “There you are,” he whispered as he slowly reached out and placed his fingertips on the etched name. “Why you?” he asked rhetorically, looking past the name and returning to a place decades back in history.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the Lejeune Memorial Gardens is one of Onslow County’s greatest treasures, standing as a testament to those lost during the Vietnam War and a solemn reminder for those that did return. The memorial served as the stage for the culmination of the 5th annual Vietnam Veterans Memorial Motorcycle Run and Rally, starting and ending at the Disabled American Veterans building Sept. 23 and continuing on until the 25.
“Years ago when funds were first being taken up to break ground for the memorial, one of the fundraising events we started was this rally,” said Pat Walker, founder and secretary of the Onslow Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation. “Not only does the community get to show its support for the memorial, but all funds we take in go directly to the construction of the memorial.”
While the memorial itself is completed, funds are still being collected for a dome to be placed above the fountain and an informational center to be constructed.
The first day saw a multitude of vendors, various activities for children, food carts, live bands and a tattoo artist took shelter inside the DAV building due to the rainy weekend weather. However, it did not damper spirits next day as the motorcycle rally and run was scheduled. Service members and civilians alike gathered together to either strike up new friendships or meet old acquaintances.
“Whether they were actually involved in the Vietnam War or not, everyone still comes out to give thanks,” said Tori Wicker, a military spouse in attendance of the event. “It will be a long time before anyone begins to forget those who have lived and died in the service of our country somewhere half way across the world.”
The following day nearly 200 motorcyclists sporting various pins and patches showed up for the run despite the on-and-off rainy weather. With leather jackets depicting their riding clubs, prior service or various support causes, they all came together as one same-minded group as they prepared to embark on a police-escorted route through Jacksonville and ending at the LMG.
After nearly an hour of riding, the bikers pulled into the gardens and made their way to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - some looking energetic, some looking somber. They all made their way to the back of the memorial where a white-flowered wreath encompassing the likeness of a Vietnam Service Medal ribbon sat.
Among those in attendance, three South Vietnamese “Montagnards” travelled from Durham to witness the following ceremony. Montagnards, or “people of the mountains,” were soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army who aided U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, often giving their lives for their American allies to help repel the Viet-Cong.
Once everyone was gathered, the memorial ceremony commenced, where among others, Col. Daniel J. Lecce, commanding officer of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, spoke to those in attendance as well as read off the names of 41 American service members who have been returned from Vietnam after the memorial was built.
“It goes without saying that all of our veterans and their families are important,” said Lecce. “Go to any memorial or museum and look at the faces of those who have fought in our nation’s wars - they are all the same. They all share a common thread, a bond, a brotherhood that, though their sacrifices, have helped shape this great country. We will never forget any names etched in these walls or any walls in this country.”
As a lone bugler blew out taps through the falling rain and the wreath was saluted to, sullen faces, wet eyes and intense stares were all cast across the thousands of names upon the circle of glass that surrounded them. Each man, woman and child were surrounded by the ghosts of 58,262 Americans that laid down their lives in the defense of freedom so that everyone, regardless of race or creed within the shores of this nation, was free.
“I know you’re here right now buddy,” said the Vietnam veteran quietly, removing his fingers from the transparent name as he swallowed hard and blinked back a tear. “I’ll see you again someday.”