Vietnam veterans flock to Wall That Heals in Bensenville

Vietnam veteran Helmut Stankevicius was at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., when it opened in 1982, and has returned several times.

On Thursday, the Elmhurst resident didn’t have to travel nearly so far to pay his respects at a half-scale traveling replica of the wall in Bensenville, where he and other vets touched the names of their fallen comrades and paused to reflect on the harsh experiences of war.

“The wall in Washington is a little bigger, but it has the same effect,” said Stankevicius, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam from February 1969 to April 1970. “It’s just as sad. The names are still there and it still hurts. And you still remember.”

The replica, called The Wall That Heals, arrived in Bensenville Tuesday and public viewing began Thursday morning after an opening ceremony. It will remain on display through Sunday evening at Redmond Park, 735 E. Jefferson St.

The traveling wall has visited more than 350 towns throughout the country since it was unveiled on Veterans Day 1996. Last year it was on display at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, where Bensenville Trustee Morris Bartlett saw it and inquired about bringing it to his town. Last October, he contacted the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which operates both the wall in Washington and the replica, and by February he learned Bensenville had been selected as a stop on the 2013 nationwide tour.

The 250-foot-long replica features 24 individual panels of powder-coated aluminum, each containing six columns of names.

Like the memorial in Washington, D.C., it bears the names of the 58,286 men and women who were killed while serving during the Vietnam War. Just as on the wall in Washington, the replica features the names listed by the day of their death.

Stankevicius said he was making his first visit to the replica but planned to come back throughout the weekend. He came with a stack of index cards — each with the name and rank of fallen soldiers he knew in Vietnam.

One of the names he located was that of Richard Palcowski, a neighborhood kid and fellow St. Rita High School graduate he remembers from growing up on Chicago’s South Side.

Finding those names on the wall brings back difficult memories, but Stankevicius says he also recalls the “good times” back at the base — when he and other soldiers would share their care packages sent from home — usually filled with cookies and cigarettes.

“They were closer than your brother,” he said.

Paul Baffico was also at the replica wall Thursday, but most often he can be found at the real one in Washington. As a docent for the National Park Service for the past six years, the Lake Forest resident travels to the wall once a month to answer questions for visitors, reflect on his experiences in Vietnam, and remember those who have passed.

“Veterans who come to the wall are touching a piece of history they haven’t been through in a long time,” Baffico said. “It’s an instant recall to that moment. You can touch it, feel it, smell it.”

Recalling Vietnam is a normal part of his life now, but it’s something he says he shut out for 35 years after returning home. The political and cultural environment, he says, forced him to.

“When we came back, we kept our mouths shut. We didn’t want to get in a conversation or debate,” he said.

Baffico attended classes in the late 1960s at the University of San Francisco in that city’s Haight-Asbury district. A member of the ROTC, he was a regular target of anti-war protesters, so much so that he would change into his Class A uniform in his car before drill practice, then change back into street clothes before heading home.

After he returned from the war, he had paint and urine tossed on him. His friends from high school and college disavowed him.

Even his high school religion teacher, a Jesuit priest, was critical.

“He said ‘you’re a killer, you’re a murderer, and you’re going to hell,’” Baffico said. “I ran into enough rejection. I wasn’t shocked, but I was hurt. I said, ‘You guys are blaming me for this war? I didn’t start the war.’

“What we’ve learned since then is to blame the politician, not the soldier.”

Baffico entered the professional world, eventually rising to the level of president of the Sears Automotive group. It wasn’t until he retired early at age 53 and started his own consulting business that all the flashbacks of Vietnam resurfaced.

As an Army platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division from April 1970 to January 1971, Baffico lost five men during battle. At the time, he says, you’re told, “It doesn’t mean nothing. Put it out of your mind right now. Don’t shed a tear.”

His wife suggested he volunteer at the wall in Washington and the traveling wall when it’s nearby to help with his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s cheaper than therapy and it works a lot better,” Baffico said. “This is a safe place and a sacred place.”

Bob Dobek and his wife Brenda are on the road for 10 months out of the year as site managers for the traveling wall. Brenda heard about the job on the radio and thought they should get involved.

Bob, a retired Army sergeant first class, said he was resistant at first, not knowing if he wanted to be reminded of his time in Vietnam.

“When you’re young, you work to fill your wallet. When you’re old, you work to fill your heart,” he said. “I get to travel with my buddies and other people’s buddies and take them to big cities and little towns across the United States. I don’t know how you can have a job better than that.”

Viewing of the wall in Bensenville will take place through Sunday, with sunset ceremonies planned at 7 p.m. each day.

It will return to the Chicago suburbs Sept. 18-21 at the Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin.

A mobile museum also is on site that features photos of service members whose names are on the wall, letters and memorabilia left at the wall in Washington, and other historical exhibits.

Many veterans who visit The Wall That Heals haven’t been to the real one in Washington, and some may never go. Those who do visit the traveling wall are comforted by the experience, Dobek says, because it helps them “close a mystery they’ve had for 45 years.”

“If you don’t cleanse that wound, it festers,” he said. “Sometimes you have to reopen that wound first and let it hurt with your tears.”

  Opening ceremonies were held Thursday in Bensenville for The Wall That Heals, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Daniel White/
  The names of former Fenton High School students killed in Vietnam are engraved in bricks that will be displayed permanently in Bensenville’s Redmond Park or the village’ downtown, officials said. Daniel White/
  Navy veteran Alex Martella of Bensenville honors the fallen during opening ceremonies Thursday for The Wall That Heals, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Daniel White/
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