Human Interest

Willie J. Ridgeway. Thomas L. Chandler. Stephen G. Sample. Ruben D. Reese. Jimmy L. Vaultz.

They weren’t celebrities, pro athletes or rock stars. Instead, these young men were someone’s son, someone’s brother or someone’s father. And what they all have in common is that they were among the more than 58,000 Americans who died during the Vietnam War.

As a way to honor those who lost their lives, the Vietnam Memorial Wall was built in Washington, D.C., thanks in part to nearly $9 million in donations in the 1980s. And while more than 3 million people visit the wall annually, millions of others see it thanks to five traveling walls. One of those walls was in Sedona this past week for the first time as part of the Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day at Posse Grounds Park. At nearly 350 feet long, it’s 80 percent the size of the permanent one.

“Overall, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” said Ed Uzumeckis, who headed up the Welcome Home committee. “I don’t have the words for it. I start to think about it and I begin to cry. The entire event was very moving. It truly reflected the respect we have for the veterans and the 58,000 names on that wall.”

Uzumeckis wanted to thank the dozens of volunteers as well as businesses and organizations that helped make the event become a reality.

“Without them, this event wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

Sylvia Woods, of Cottonwood, said as soon as she heard the traveling wall would be in Sedona, she knew she had to see it.

“My uncle Tommy was killed in Vietnam in 1970, two years before I was born,” she said. “Growing up my mom would tell me about her big brother and show me pictures. Obviously I never knew him but seeing his name, it made me feel a little closer to him.”

City Councilman John Martinez was active in the promotion of the wall and its fundraising efforts. Even though he didn’t fight in Vietnam, he knew several who did.

“I’m doing my part to honor those who served and paid the ultimate sacrifice,” he said.

Martinez said he had a close friend from high school who was killed in Vietnam. When asked if he had looked for his name yet on the wall, he said, “I haven’t looked yet — I need to find it. I’m getting choked up just talking about it.”

While those like Woods and Martinez lost family and friends, Tommy Smith lost several comrades in arms. The San Diego resident, who visits Sedona a few times a year, fought in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 and said he will always consider those lost as his brothers.

“A lot of us didn’t receive a very warm welcome when we got home,” he said. “Like many, I was called lots of names like baby killer. We were just there doing what we were told and to come home and be called things like baby killer wasn’t easy. There were no ticker-tape parades like you saw for those coming home from Korea or World War II. We came back and just tried to blend back into society.”

Smith said he’s been to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in the nation’s capitol three times and each visit was an emotional as the last.

“Having the wall is very special for those of us who came home and for the family and friends of those who didn’t,” he said. “The war is still an open wound for many all these years later. It’s appreciated when we come to events like this one and people come up to you and simply say ‘thank you.’”


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