The American Veterans Traveling Tribute’s (AVTT) Traveling Wall stopped in Warwick from Thursday to Monday, and was host to a ceremony on Friday afternoon paying tribute to those who died in the Vietnam War.
A total of 219 Rhode Islanders died in the Vietnam War, marked by a wreath unveiled at the event with the number in it. Of those 209, 20 were residents of Warwick, and 11 were Cranston residents.
Veterans read the names of all 219, with short moments of silence following each name, and multiple choking up reading the names of those who had a personal connection with. Mike DeFrancesco, one of the veterans speaking before the crowd, said he was looking for the 48 names on the wall of those killed in the battle he was involved in. Veteran Ernie Boisvert, in the midst of reading the names of those who died, gave a special mention to Warwick native Gerald Allan Blair, a member of his platoon who he was close friends with.
According to keynote speaker and former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Francis X. Flaherty, Vietnam veterans were younger than the veterans of any other war, with an average age of 19 years old during the war.
Army veteran Flaherty, who served in Vietnam, said that unlike veterans of other wars, it took Vietnam vets significantly longer to become respected in the public eye.
“Our nation’s unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the war policy itself was projected onto those with an order to serve and to fight,” Flaherty said.
However, Flaherty noted that Friday’s commemoration was about the soldiers who didn’t make it home.
“Those are the real heroes of this war,” Flaherty said. “It is true that any of the thousands from the Ocean State who served the country had to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. But it was those 219 who did.”
The event was attended by local and statewide officials, including Mayor Frank Picozzi, Representative Seth Magaziner and Treasurer James Diossa. Also in attendance was First Congressional District Democratic candidate Gabe Amo, who said that while the event wasn’t in the district he’s running to represent, it was important to show respect to all Rhode Islanders who died, including many who would have been his potential constituents.
Throughout the 50 years since U.S. involvement ended in the Vietnam War, the veterans in attendance have lived full lives outside of their war experience. As they remembered their fallen friends, though, the memories of that period of their lives came rushing back.
“Hearing the veterans speaking, saying their names, their voices cracking, it shows the importance of events like this,” Erik Wallin, Operation Stand Down Executive Director, said.
The wall was officially disassembled on Monday by students at Bishop Hendricken High School to head to its next destination of Huntington, WV. Eleven students from the Bishop Hendricken Leadership Academy- a program that consists of students grades 10-12 who help with schoolwide and community events, among other things- helped members of Operation Stand Down with the process.
Wes Shivers, an Army veteran who drives the wall around the country, said that Huntington is his last destination before returning to his home in Texas. Warwick, though, stuck out to him.
“Usually, when we get into a city around this size, we don’t get the turnout, but this was planned really well,” Shivers said. “I had no complaints whatsoever- it was a really good event.”
For the time that the wall was in Warwick, though, the meaning for those that served was incalculable.
“The one thing I can tell you- us Vietnam vets have no regrets,” Daniel Evangelista said.