George Fields remembers a time when coming home from war didn’t mean parades and celebrations.
“When these guys came home from Vietnam, nobody wanted to know them,” said Fields, a Vietnam War veteran from Cato. “We weren’t popular back then. They were not recognized like vets are today.”
That’s likely because the Vietnam War was one of the most controversial conflicts in American history, causing a maelstrom of protests that tore the fabric of society in the 1960s and ‘70s. From the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that started the conflict to the Watergate affair made public as it drew to a close, the war left many Americans untrusting of their government and the military establishment — even the common soldiers on the ground, most of whom were drafted.
But now, the country is looking to make up for the vets’ cool return home. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund seeks to locate photos of all those killed during the conflict in Vietnam. So far, organizers have collected nearly 34,000 photos of 58,286 casualties. The photos are being displayed on a virtual “Wall of Faces,” which can be found at vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces.
The VVMF plans to construct a new Education Center near the existing wall on the National Mall. Construction is planned to begin in 2016; the center should be completed by 2019. The center will act as an addition to the existing Vietnam War Memorial, also simply called “The Wall,” which was built in 1982 based on a design by architect Maya Lin. The Wall is located in Constitution Gardens adjacent to the National Mall, just northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial is maintained by the U.S. National Park Service and receives around 4.5 million visitors each year. The new education center will be located next to the Wall in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.
In addition to a photo, the virtual wall includes the soldier’s date of birth, date of death, hometown, branch of service, rank, location of death and the location of the soldier’s name on the brick-and-mortar wall. Visitors can also post a remembrance for that soldier through the page.
Statewide, New York saw 4,126 men killed in action. A total of 93 men from Onondaga County died in Vietnam, along with 23 from Madison County. Of those, 54 aren’t represented with a picture.
The New York Press Association has launched a campaign to collect those missing photos. They hope to have completed the wall by Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
“We hope every newspaper association and newspaper in the United States will join in the effort in finding the missing photos of the heroes listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall,” said NYPA Executive Director Michelle K. Rea.
For his part, Fields, who drove a dump truck as a non-combat engineer from 1968-69 — “Not that there was such a thing as non-combat at that time,” he said — thinks the virtual wall demonstrates a shift in the way the country views its vets.
“When I came home, I never told anyone I was a veteran,” he said. “It wasn’t a popular thing to be back then. But things have changed for the better.”
He said he’s glad to see those who sacrificed their lives remembered.
“It brings attention to what the vets are going through,” Fields said. As far as vets go, any time you’re recognized as serving your country, it’s always going to make you feel better.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.