Iowa's original Vietnam Memorial set to be burned
The lyrics to "Some Gave All" come beating from a portable boom-box, matching the rhythm of the Storm Lake breeze whipping the black POW/MIA flag, along with the 29 meaningful American flags stuck into the grass.
It is a scene these two graying warriors repeat, somewhere, most days of the year.
They do it for Thomas Carrington and James Sampers, two young Storm Lake men who gave their lives in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.
They do it for Capt. Robert Rex of Odeboldt, Lt. Norman Roggow of Aurelia and Airman Steven Adams of Spencer, the three area men who to this day are considered Missing in Action.
And they do it for the loved ones of 867 Iowans who died in that war, and those of 29 Iowans who are still considered Prisoners of War or MIAs. It is in their honor that they stick those 29 American flags into every patch of ground that will have them on their endless journey.
But now, they will need a hand, and they need it badly.
Thomas Vanatter of Webster City, and his buddy Jim Dudley, travel the state six days a week with what remains of the Iowa version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, now too worse for wear to be erected.
They were in Storm Lake Tuesday, collecting funds in hopes to see a new Iowa wall built.
"There are two of us who are disabled from Vietnam - we can't do much else, so we volunteer to do this, at our own expense," Vanatter said.
Once a silently brooding veteran, Vanatter said that some fellow Vietnam survivors "basically dragged and hauled me" to see the national memorial wall. "I was there for many hours, and it changed me. For the first time, I really talked about the experience, and to tell you the truth, I haven't shut up since."
In 1990, Vanatter and fellow Iowa veterans set out to build an Iowa version of that Washington, D.C. monument, piling up 5,000 hours of volunteer labor at the Vet's Center in Des Moines, using their own money for several thousand dollars worth of materials and a trailer to haul it.
"My feeling is that if our brothers could see it, and if it had even a fraction of the impact on them that it had on me, it would make their lives better - and that made it worth doing. We knew that many couldn't make the trip to Washington, or were still in too much pain to do it, so we would have to bring the wall to them."
The veterans didn't build something to last - in fact, Vanatter said, they planned one year of showing, and half expected to be thrown out of the first town they visited as a nuisance.
"At the first place we came to for a showing, 11,000 people came out. We were amazed. Since then we have visited well over 100 communities, and kept on going for nine years and made constant repairs to the wall. In 1999, we decided that the condition it had fallen into was not respectful. The guys with their names on this wall deserved better."
They retired the Iowa wall. Its remnants still rest in their trailer, somewhat faded and peeling.
Like the national monument, there are 58,235 names on the Iowa wall, plus additional panels especially for the state's own casualties and MIA's. When the wall project started, there were 39 Iowans considered MIAs from Vietnam, and remains of 10 have since been identified or discovered.
"The ultimate would be to bring one of these men home alive," Vanatter said, gesturing to the panel of names. "There is no doubt in my mind that some MIA's remain alive in Asia."
Teams have just now gotten clearance to begin searching in areas of Laos and Cambodia, he said - if necessary, sifting sand by the handful for fragments of bone or dog tags.
"We will never rest on this issues. In every war in history, there have been people left behind. The Vietnam veterans are the first to go through life saying that no one will ever be left behind or forgotten."
The process is slow, and is largely ignored by the media and the public these days, as more immediate issues push to the forefront. "I think most Vietnam veterans would tell you there is a chance someone is still alive there. There have been too many sightings and stories for it not to be true. After so much torture, they may not even remember who they are, but we won't stop working until we get them. We know that as time goes by, the hope gets slimmer," Vanatter said.
Billing their project as "the wall that heals," the volunteers find that it has erased some of the bitter memories of home they were treated when they returned from the war. "It still brings up old memories that I struggle with, but it is worth it when you can see it comfort families of men who were lost over there," Vanatter said.
The veterans are seeking to raise about $50,000 in materials to build a wall that they say will long outlive all of them. Funds will also be needed for a new trailer, flags, lighting and set-up materials.
Attempts to place the original wall with a museum have failed. None in the state were able to display the entire thing, or to convince the veterans that they would give it proper care or respect.
So, Vanatter said, it will be erected for one final time in a ceremony for Veterans Day in November at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds in Webster City. Then it will be torn down, the remains placed in a circle, and it will be ceremonially burned.
The veterans hope to have the new Iowa Wall done by next May, to erect first on the same spot where the old wall will be set on fire. "Where one will die, the next will be born," said Vanatter.
It will then begin to tour daily, following the same schedule as the original wall took when it debuted - which will bring it back to Storm Lake for a major showing, as it was featured some years ago in a Fourth of July event in the city.
"These are the size towns where the veterans are, although in so many cases, nobody realizes they are Vietnam vets," Vanatter said. "It still touches me when they come out to see the names they knew - and when the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews come to see the name of someone they love."
The traveling veterans, who are seldom in their own homes for more than half a day a week, also like to visit schools whenever possible.
They feel their efforts have paid dividends beyond the wall itself. "There are efforts even today to go back and search for the answers the families of the MIA's deserve, because we've kept hollering about it. All the POW/MIA flags you see still flying, that's from our hollering. And today, when veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan come home, they will receive mandatory counseling instead of being thrown out on the street the way the Vietnam vets were. The Vietnam guys are proud of that, all of their hollering has paid off."
The men also have so far uncovered the stories of 14 Iowans who died in Vietnam who national military officials mistakenly left off all rolls for service from the state. In those cases, the men may have enlisted in some other state, so never were included on Iowa rolls, and also never have been considered eligible to be honored in the other states. "We brought them home to our wall," Vanatter said. "We won't let them be forgotten, either. The national government will tell you there were 853 Iowans killed in Vietnam, but we know it was 867."
In Storm Lake and several other northwest Iowa towns, O'Reilly Auto Parts hosted the veterans, since, as Vanatter points out, a vast majority of the vets are also "motorheads."
Collections were slow Tuesday as there was no opportunity to advertise their plans to come to the city, but the duo is undaunted. "If I have to get down on my knees and beg for a dime, I'll gladly do that," Vanatter said.
Or, to save a veteran's knees, you are welcomed to write a check for the Iowa National Vietnam Veterans Traveling Memorial Inc., P.O. Box 585, Ankeny, Iowa, 50021.