They came to honor those who died fighting in Vietnam Saturday and left with a call to action to end homelessness and eliminate medical delays for all veterans.
The occasion was a ceremony at the American Veteran Traveling Tribute and the Traveling Wall, an 80-percent scale replica of the Vietnam Memorial that is in the nation's capital. Spanning 360 feet, the replica arrived Wednesday at India Point Park as hosted by Operation Stand Down Rhode Island. It left Sunday.
It was Anthony DeQuattro, founding president of the organization, who called on those assembled to correct conditions at the Veterans Administration and to demand for better care, including housing, for our veterans.
Recalling the Vietnam era, he said all members of the armed services, regardless of whether they served in the war, could not wear their uniforms in public without risking being called names and jeered.
“I made one vow that when these kids come home;” he said of veterans of wars to follow Vietnam, “this would never happen again.”
He said conditions have improved and veterans of all wars are recognized for their contributions.
“It’s time we step up,” he said. “Vets should be able to walk in [to a VA hospital] and get service.”
Then, pulling his VA card from his pocket and holding it up, he said, “Let them use this to go to any doctor, or to any hospital and get service.”
His suggestion was loudly applauded.
“They gave their legs, their arms … what more do you want from them? Tell the politicians to get off the stick, and tell them what to do,” he said.
Founded in 1993, with headquarters in Johnston, Operation Stand Down provides 49 units for homeless veterans and will be opening 15 units this October, said Erik Wallin, executive director.
The memorial replica brought together veterans, their families and those, like Dan Beardsley, were looking for the solitude and power of being in a place where the names of more than 58,000 who died are powerfully displayed. Wearing his fatigue shirt, festooned with medals, Beardsley sat in front of the wall quietly. He arrived in Vietnam two days before the Tet Offensive in 1968. Twenty-three from his company were killed and Beardsley returned to this country five months later after being wounded in battle for a second time.
Keynote speaker at Saturday’s ceremony, Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Francis X. Flaherty, observed that the average age of combat troops in the Civil War and the two World Wars was 26, but for Vietnam, the average age of the American troop was 19-and-a-half.
“As we look across the classrooms and in the hallways of the high schools of our state, can we even conceive of half of the seniors being asked to fight or being drafted to fight in a foreign war? Can we see them carrying, not book bags or hockey equipment, but 60-pound rucksacks and machine guns as they trudge though the jungles and rice paddies, knee deep in mud as they march toward an uncertain fate?” asked Flaherty.
Flaherty also touched on criticism of the Veterans Administration, saying, “We are all painfully aware of some of the problems.”
But he also praised the work of veterans’ service organizations, like Operation Stand Down, and their efforts to help veterans and to remember the sacrifices they have made.
It was a theme set in the invocation delivered by Father Robert L. Marciano:
“Today, dear Lord, we pause to honor those whose names are etched on these walls, and those who served with them in the Vietnam War. They are our heroes, who stepped forward when duty called to leave family and home to place their lives at the service of the nation. May we never forget them and always cherish the freedom that is ours and the price that was paid by them.”
Flaherty likewise urged that we remember.
“One of the great tragedies of war is that the dead simply fade away from us. Their loss is felt acutely when it occurs, but then it washes itself from our consciousness and then rinses itself from our memories,” he said.
Flaherty remarked how even those days set aside to honor those who gave their lives, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, have been robbed of their true meaning and have become just another opportunity for retail sales, cookouts, or getaway weekends.
The names of all 209 Rhode Islanders who died in Vietnam were read.
The 20 from Warwick who died were: Maj. Frank Everett Bennett; Lance Cpl. David Eugene Belver; Cpl. Gerald Allan Blair; Lance Cpl. Robert William Cottenier; Cpl. Leo Paul Dunsmore; Maj. Kenneth Bradford Goff Jr.; Cpl. John Bryant Headley; Capt. Frank Allen Hill III; and Pvt. First Class Richard Alan Jurcak.
Also, First Lt. Robert William MacNaught; Second Lt. Richard Douglas McKenzie; Staff Sgt. Dennis Evans Milliard; Sgt. Ernest Manuel Perry Jr.; Sgt. Joseph Thomas Pigeon Jr.; PFC William Charles Stanley, Specialist Fourth Class Robert James Sterling; Capt. Alfred Leonard Tripp; and Specialist First Class James Leo Warner.