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Emotions run high at memorial wall
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Veterans Wayne Mitchell, left, and Jim Donley look for names of their friends killed in Vietnam.
CLEARWATER – There was no shortage of emotion in Clearwater’s Coachman Park on Nov. 2 as the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall made a weekend stop.

Veterans and civilians alike came to look at and touch the wall with more than 58,000 names of those who died in the Vietnam conflict. The emotion was felt particularly by those who had fought there and survived.

Jim Donley and Wayne Mitchell, two friends from Pinellas Park who came to see the wall did not try to hide their emotions as they spoke about what it meant to them.

“There is a lot of emotion here today,” said Donley, who served in Vietnam in the Marines in 1969. “There are a lot of memories. Each name up there is a person. I have quite a few friends whose names are on that wall. When you see them it hits you. It is a big impact.”

His friend Mitchell, who served in the Army in Vietnam in 1968 and ’69, felt the same way.

“This is really overwhelming,” he said. “These people paid the ultimate price and I have the highest respect for them. This is so heartbreaking; so painful it represents so much suffering. War is terrible and we all lose.”

The Wall is based in Melbourne, Fla., but travels all over the United States. Shelly Bauer is a spokesman for the Wall organization. He says it provides comfort wherever it goes.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder stimulates things that occurred in battle,” he said. “Soldiers saw others die, get wounded, maimed, and they want to honor the people on the wall. This is their way of doing it and we provide the venue for them as they would like.”

The wall is kept open around the clock because Bauer said many veterans will come out in the middle of the night to be alone with their thoughts and needing privacy.

Peter Birrow of Gulfport is one of those. He served in the Army in Vietnam in 1968. He couldn’t wait to get to visit the wall.

“I showed up here yesterday morning, but I was a day early,” he said. “This is very humbling. You know, I didn’t have much emotion about all this until 10 years ago when I visited the wall in D.C. and saw all those names. I went there by myself at 2 in the morning and it struck home. Then I did what every man should do. I cried. There is nothing wrong with crying.”

He said the wall serves a great purpose.

“It is a good thing,” Birrow said. “It gives people the opportunity to see all these names and grieve and understand what happened.”

The opening ceremony introducing the Wall was attended by a number of local dignitaries who spoke and paid tribute to the veterans of all wars and conflicts. Notable during the ceremony was the AVAST Color Guard. AVAST stands for Amputee Veterans of America Support Team. Each member of the Color Guard was an amputee, each a reminder of what war can do.

Bill Sturtevant of Clearwater did not serve in Vietnam but has classmates whose names are on the Wall. He came to pay them tribute.

“The war was an American tragedy,” Sturtevant said. “I’m here to honor them and I can’t think of a place I’d rather be this morning than right here.”

Veteran Robert Burnham of Safety Harbor came for the same reason. He was in the Army from 1968 to ’71 but never served in Vietnam. Friends of his did, however, and their names are on the wall. He said his emotions were running high.

The Wall remained set up in Coachman Park through Nov. 4. There were ceremonies throughout the weekend. But there is little doubt most of those who went to see the wall were taken with the emotions and feelings it evoked.

“It is almost like I’m looking for my own name there,” said Dick Steinberg of Madeira Beach. “It would have been so easy to have my name up there with all the others.”

Steinberg served two tours in Vietnam, in 1965 and again in 1968, both times as a dog handler. He has seen the permanent wall in D.C. three times and has seen the Traveling Wall more times than he cares to count.

“This is a good thing because when we came back we weren’t treated very well,” he said. “This restores some dignity to those who died and serves to remind us to better treat the men and woman who are returning from today’s wars.”
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