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Vietnam Veterans Memorial: 'The Wall That Heals'

Those seeking names of the fallen in Vietnam and those simply paying their respects to soldiers lost in the war filed along "The Wall That Heals" Thursday.

Those seeking names of the fallen in Vietnam and those simply paying their respects to soldiers lost in the war filed along "The Wall That Heals" Thursday.

Many wiped eyes and shook hands with Vietnam veterans. They read the statistics -- more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen and women lost their lives in the Vietnam War -- read the inscriptions, touched the names and examined the memorabilia in the traveling museum.

Vance Balstad of Bemidji and his daughter Sarah found the name of a Michigan man who lost his life in Vietnam, Thomas Riggs.

"In my college days, we bought bracelets with (solders') names on them," Balstad said. His bracelet was engraved with Riggs' name.

"I have no idea who he was," Balstad said. "He was never found. What happened was a helicopter went down over the ocean."

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Moved to tears for a man he never met, but who represented the great sacrifice of the Vietnam War, Balstad tapped his temple and said, "Funny. I don't have the bracelet, but I have his name in here. I was fortunate enough to go to college. A lot of guys didn't because they're on this Wall."

The 250-foot, half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is currently on national tour. The exhibit will remain at the Bemidji waterfront until 8 p.m. Sunday. There will be a public ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday followed by an open house and welcome to all veterans 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Bemidji American Legion Club. The American Legion Ralph Gracie Post 14 is hosting "The Wall That Heals." A closing ceremony at 6 p.m. Sunday will be held privately for Vietnam War veterans only.

On Thursday, Joe Johnson of Bemidji, who served with Echo Company 2nd of 5th 1st Cavalry from 1968 to 1969 in Vietnam, spent time visiting with other veterans at the exhibit and taking down names of members of his unit who lost their lives.

He said there will be a memorial for the 15 men of his platoon during a 40th anniversary reunion in September in Memphis, Tenn. His unit was small, he said, so it will join with other Vietnam veterans for the reunion.

"We were basically a scout platoon, so there weren't really a lot of guys," Johnson said. "Our mission was just to go out and look for activity, but most of the time I think we were used as bait to draw them in."

His platoon had two members killed in action while he was in the field, but more later, he said.

"From the time between when I left the field to when I left the company, they were in Cambodia and going against concrete bunkers 6-8 inches thick," he said. "So, if I ever complain about not being lucky, slap me in the head."

"Vietnam was quite an experience," said Jim Halcrow of Bemidji, who served in Long Binh near Saigon in support forces from 1969 to 1971. "Coming back from the military from Vietnam, it wasn't great. We were basically shunned."

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"Never again," said Halcrow's friend, KenDonaghue of Bemidji. "If kids come back from war, we're going to take care of them."

Donaghue served from 1967 to 1968 in the 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam.

Kent Bahr of Bemidji, who was just slightly too young to be drafted for the Vietnam War, said memories of the tension of the time are still strong. He visited the Wall on Thursday with Scott Buchan, a student from Oak Hills Christian College who was looking for the name of his wife's uncle, James Anthony Koch.

Buchan said he was driving by the park, saw the display and recalled his father-in-law talking about Koch and showing him a book with profiles of fallen soldiers.

"It's a patriotic, somber feeling," Bahr said. "It reminds me of how each night they would say the number of casualties on TV. Each day you'd hear that, every day, every day."

As he grew older, he said, he realized his potential of being drafted for the war became more likely.

"I remember the days of the lotteries," he said. "People would sit and wait to see what numbers were going."

And although many Vietnam veterans like Halcrow came home to a cold welcome, or even to be harassed and persecuted, Bahr said his family always supported the soldiers.

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"My parents, bless them," he said. "When we would pray at the supper table ... my parents or I or my sister would pray for the boys in service. We're still praying for them."

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