Why group wants photos of every service member killed in Vietnam
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Look at a picture of Army Lt. David A. Johnson, and you'll see the same big smile that earned him the nickname "Big Dave" among Afghan civilians.
The son of an Elmhurst native, Johnson was mortally wounded in 2012 by an improvised explosive device in one of the country's most dangerous regions. Images of Johnson, like other fallen soldiers of his generation, are well-documented online.
But what of the men killed while serving in Vietnam? Many of their faces were hidden in long-forgotten obituaries and old high school yearbooks until the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund took on a daunting task about a decade ago: creating a digital database of photos for every name listed on the monument in Washington, D.C.
All 58,318 of them.
Johnson's father, Andrew, is one of the volunteers across the country determined to pull those pictures out of obscurity through the "Wall of Faces" project.
As a newspaper publisher in rural Wisconsin and the incoming president of the National Newspaper Association, Johnson is uniquely positioned for the job.
But it's become a much more personal mission, too. Vietnam veterans escorted his son's casket, attended his funeral and offered their support to his grieving family.
"They took such good care of us, and I say that from the bottom of the heart," he said.
So he's taking great care to honor their battlefield buddies who never returned home. After helping track down photos of Wisconsin residents who died in Vietnam, Johnson has turned his attention to the same task in Illinois.
Two suburban lawmakers -- state Rep. David Harris, a Republican from Arlington Heights, and state Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Democrat from Villa Park -- also are building momentum for the search. Harris and Cullerton, both veterans, sponsored resolutions that passed in both chambers endorsing the "Wall of Faces" effort.
Organizers are still missing photos for 331 Illinois service members who died in Vietnam. Nationally, there are nearly 4,000 missing photos.
Those numbers remain high, but represent substantial progress since the nationwide project began. The goal is to display the photos in the Education Center at The Wall, a $130 million underground structure that would be built near the D.C. memorial.
But the clock is ticking.
"A lot of these Gold Star brothers and families are dying," Johnson said. "A lot of these Vietnam guys are getting old. I believe we have a short window of time to really get this done. I think we need to move on it quickly now."
More than names
The search for photos in Wisconsin involved reaching out to newspapers with a list of local service members killed in Vietnam, said Johnson, who helped finish the task in his home state and got the National Newspaper Association on board.
Those publications found images in their archives and ran stories about the project. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee journalism students and their professor found the final 63 photos after sifting through cemetery records and other documents to find surviving relatives.
It wasn't just clerical work.
"In Wisconsin, on two occasions, we found pictures and gave them to the children who never saw a picture of their dad," said Johnson, who owns the Dodge County Pionier in Mayville.
The 55-year-old, who grew up in Elmhurst until junior high, began collaborating with the Illinois Press Association about two years ago to put faces to the state's 2,938 service members whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
In Springfield, Josh Sharp, the group's executive vice president and chief operating officer, proposed resolutions that got the backing of Harris and Cullerton. The lawmakers also are raising awareness through their offices and social media.
"We will do whatever we can to get the word out," Cullerton, an Army veteran, said.
Harris said it's "relatively easy" to submit photos online. A video about the process recently was created by the Illinois House Republican staff under direction from Harris and his office.
The images don't have to be military portraits. Indeed, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund prefers the informal pictures, the prom photos, the shots of dads holding their children.
"Those are fantastic photos that help tell the story because when we think that the 58,318 Americans who died were nothing but names or numbers, then we forget their sacrifices and what they gave us," said Tim Tetz, the fund's outreach director.
The nonprofit group has raised $42.5 million of the $130 million cost to build the education center across the street from the Wall.
Inside the center, the faces of the casualties would be projected onto a two-story screen. Some of the 400,000 items that have been left behind by visitors to the Wall would be placed in what Tetz said would rank as the largest-ever display case built for a museum.
Giving his all
Johnson hopes all the Illinois photos are found by Memorial Day. It's an ambitious goal and may require researchers to complete the mission, but he vows to find pictures that show the human cost of war.
"You can see the character of the person," he said. "You see their eyes. You see their smile."
You can certainly see his son's smile in photos that preserve memories of the high-ranking Eagle Scout.
"I want my son to be remembered as a man who loved his country and gave his all," Johnson said. "My son would have no regrets for his death, as sad as it was."
Remembering the sacrifices of those who fought in Vietnam helps the father cope with his own grief.
"It's something I could do. I can't erase the past," he said. "I can't fix it. But this is something I can do."