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Emotions run high at The Wall

Janet Urquhart
With tears in her eyes from her deceased unckle, Rhonda M Goc of Browning, Mont., stencils the name of her "Uncle Butchie," Andrew J. Rogus, jr., while she visits the Veitnam Veteran's traveling Memorial Wall at Rio Grande Park in Aspen Thursday afternoon May 20, 2004. "I remember my Uncle Butchie when I was little," she says, "he was killed when I was 6." Goc added that her uncle was killed in action three days before he was to return to the United States in July of 1970. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.
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If you build it, they will come.

They will come even before you’re finished. They will etch the names of loved ones onto pieces of paper even as the stark, black panels are still being placed, side by side, by young, muscled men working side by side with tattooed guys who have tears in their eyes.

By the time the model monolith made its 90-degree turn across the green, clipped expanse of Rio Grande Park on Thursday, The Wall was drawing a steady stream of people, from the merely curious to veterans struggling to keep their composure.

Even for generations far too young to remember body counts on the nightly news, the staggering number of names on The Wall is unsettling – an all-too-powerful reminder of the cost of war.

Especially these days.

The American Veterans Traveling Tribute, a 4/5-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., will remain on display in Aspen until Monday at 9 a.m. Then, it will be dismantled and depart for its next stop in California.

But for the weekend, Rio Grande Park will be a site of music and mourning, prayers and healing, and most of all, remembrance.

Yesterday, Howie Berg of Basalt ran his fingers across the engraved names in search of one of several fallen comrades, killed on Fulox 6, a hill west of Da Nang. Crying out a name, he choked back tears.

Berg has steered clear of a visit to The Wall at the capital, unsure that he could hold himself together there. He tried once at a traveling memorial in Mississippi to locate the names of all six buddies who died that day in December 1966 – the same day Berg was shot, ending his tour of duty.

Overcome, Berg left The Wall in Mississippi before his task was complete.

In Aspen, he has another chance to connect with those names, those memories. He was one of some 50 to 60 volunteers who gathered yesterday to erect the memorial.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to handle it, but I did,” he said. “This is helping me immensely.”

Bill Douglas, a member of the Finn Construction crew that abandoned their house-building duties Thursday to help put up panels and pound stakes, was on his hands and knees in the grass, scanning the names of those killed in April 1968.

Somewhere there is his best friend from high school.

Debbie Poleri, a detention officer at the Pitkin County Jail, sought the name of a friend’s fiance.

“I’ll never forget when my brother went,” she said. “The feeling, it was terrible. We’d watch the war on TV at night. Just like now.”

Her brother was fortunate, serving stateside in the military police.

The Wall will be accessible throughout the weekend. Also on display in the park is a collection of paintings by Norm Bergsma, a veteran who came to grips with his experiences in Vietnam through his art. Bergsma owns this particular traveling version of The Wall.

Formal activities will get under way today at the park with an opening ceremony from 10 to 11:30 a.m., featuring a flyover, the presentation of colors, the singing of the national anthem, welcoming remarks and several speakers, among other formalities.

A memorial ceremony is planned Saturday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., including the reading of the names of Coloradans who died in Vietnam. A flyover by a pair of Huey helicopters will be followed by the display of the aircraft at the Aspen schools campus from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. They should land in the campus parking lot between 11:10 and 11:15 a.m.

Also on Saturday, a 3 p.m. gourd dance at the park will feature members of the Navajo and Southern Ute nations.

The Aspen Eagles Club will serve burgers and hot dogs for $2 on Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. Proceeds will benefit the traveling Wall. Veterans will eat for free.

On Saturday at 7 p.m., the documentary “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam” will be shown at Paepcke Auditorium, followed by a 7 p.m. reception hosted by the city of Aspen.

Sunday services at the park will begin at 10 a.m., led by Rev. Richard Lyon.

A candlelight closing ceremony will feature “We Are The Wall” by local veteran John Hoepfer, who organized the exhibit in Aspen. Music, prayer, a retiring of the colors and the playing of “Taps” will conclude the program.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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