We are so blessed to have hosted the Vietnam Wall August 27-29, 2004 at Kingwood Memorial Park, in Columbus, Ohio. We had hoped 20,000 visitors would come to this little 24 acre cemetery; instead 50-75,000 came! What a great problem to have. It rained and they still kept coming! Our four 6-person golf carts shuttled people continuously for 54 continuous hours. The letters and thank you emails still keep pouring in.
We started planning this in December 2003 by forming a steering committee of media people, veterans, and Schoedinger associates. We formed our six committees and each set out to accomplish our tasks. Hundreds of personnel hours and thousands of dollars later, the Wall was gone, but not before changing many lives. There was healing, opening communication, grieving, laughing, and many other emotions that weekend.
The festivities started Tuesday, August 24, 2004, with 500 motorcycles from Rolling Thunder, Chained Eagles, Leathernecks, and other biker groups escorting us to the venue. The route was 30 miles right through the city and received extensive media coverage from all four networks and several radio stations who broadcast live. Each rider was given a specially made armband that said “Vietnam Wall Escort” with the dates on it. On Wednesday at 8 a.m., Wall truck driver, Harry Hooper, led us in a pre-construction dedication ceremony with the 25 volunteers assembled to build the wall. There were already visitors watching and even more came Thursday as the final landscaping touches were completed. Thursday night we had 300 volunteers come for training. In addition to the logistics run-through, we had counselors from the Veterans Readjustment Center there to brief us on psychological issues that might arise.
We opened the Wall at 8 a.m. Friday. For many visitors, they didn’t know anyone whose name was on the Wall. So, we had a basket of poppies with individual names of Ohioans killed in Vietnam. That was the idea of Frank Deering, member of VVA Chapter 670. He printed the names out at home and the Chapter put them on the poppies. The basket was located in the Look-Up tent and the Chapter wives passed them out to people standing in line. This gave everyone a chance to fully “experience the wall” by having a name, looking it up, finding it, then doing an etching. My kids thought this was a neat experience.
The Opening Ceremony started at noon with three Vietnam era Huey helicopters doing a flyover. Cabot Rea from our local NBC station was our emcee and welcomed mayors, generals, bagpipers, a dove release, and me to the stage. Traffic was steady through the day and really picked up about 10 p.m. Friday night. Our Color Guard from the Vietnam Veterans of America #670 stayed watch all night and said the wall had visitors every hour.
Saturday it was in the 90s with 90% humidity. It was muggy! But thousands still came. Our candlelight service was scheduled for 7:30pm, but it was pouring rain and lightning was right over head. Yet, hundreds of people waited under the tents and at the Wall for the service to begin. We really wanted to cancel the ceremony for safety sake, but too many people had come. Finally at 8:30 p.m., when the lightning had stopped, we went ahead with the program. Over 300 people attended, many in full formal military dress, as it poured down rain! The Gold Star Mothers and the Ohio State ROTC led the Remembrance Table ceremony and “Boom Boom” Cannon was our emcee from Columbus radio station 610WTVN.
Sunday, the weather cooled a little and it didn’t rain, and the people came. When I arrived at 10 a.m., the line to see the Wall stretched down the walkway past the office, and then all the way down the driveway to the back of the cemetery. We added a second line at the other end of the Wall and it came clear across the field also! It stayed that way most of the day with some visitors waiting an hour to get to the Wall, but no one complained.
Our closing ceremonies were at 2 p.m. with Vietnam veteran Jym Ganahl from NBC4 as our emcee. The highlight of this ceremony was having a drill Sergeant call up each veteran in the audience by the war they served in. When the hundreds of soldiers were assembled in front of the stage, he called them all to attention. Then he ordered them to “About face….Hand salute…(10 second pause)…Tu….About Face” Then he yelled, “Gentlemen, welcome home!” There was not a dry eye in the place.
At 4 p.m., we closed the wall, yet hundreds of people still entered the gates hoping we would keep it open. The tear-down crew began promptly at 4 p.m. with some cataloging the hundreds of items left at the Wall and others starting to loosen the bolts. Randy Schoedinger led the team and said they were completed by 8 p.m.
I have many emotions running through my head when I think about the weekend. First, I am relieved. I don’t ever remember working that intensely for so long. It took more energy, more organization, and more diligence than anything I have done in a long time. But thanks to the help of so many associates and volunteers, the work was completed.
Second, I am humbled. I can’t comprehend being a soldier, going overseas to fight a war, and coming home to an unappreciative nation! I can’t understand that, but it happened. I am grateful for what they did, and I am respectful of the sacrifices that were made.
Third, I feel like I am a better person for this experience. I learned so much from hearing so many incredible stories. I met Veterans who dropped everything they were doing to be a part of this event. I saw loyalty, devotion, and reverence from so many people. Despite, the hot, sticky, muggy weather, and even rain, people still poured through the gates of Kingwood, all 24 hours of the day. What commitment!
And finally, I am thankful. I am thankful to all our Schoedinger staff for carrying on their normal duties, and then helping with all of the details of the event. I am thankful to over 500 volunteers who came, did as they were instructed, and provided a wonderful experience for all attendees. I am thankful for the 58,000 names on the wall who paid the ultimate sacrifice to give me freedom. And I am thankful to the 50,000-75,000 people who attended during the three days and made me glad we brought the Wall to Columbus. The pain so many people have carried for so long, for some, was overwhelming. We gave them a chance to heal just a little bit. I hope we touched each one of them in some meaningful way and they experienced the healing they needed.
The Vietnam Wall is more than just an exhibit. It is a symbol of freedom, courage, history, and healing. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank you. Please know how much our whole family appreciates all you did to make the Vietnam Wall Experience a success!
Something so many of us worked so long and hard for is finally over. But as one of our associates stated, “It will never be over for me. It will live in the hearts and memories of the people who came to honor our heroes and will stay with us as a reminder of the brave men and women who gave their lives with the support of none.”
Michael is a sixth generation funeral director and is president of Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service.