Vietnam memorial in Elgin stirs emotions
It's been 45 years since Fay Kitchin's cousin was killed in the Vietnam War, but the pain is as raw as ever.
The Elgin resident found the name of her cousin on Thursday among the 58,249 names of U.S. servicemen and women who died in Vietnam, and etched on "The Wall That Heals," a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.
The replica is now in Elgin and will be open to visitors day and night through Sunday.
"I feel regret and pride," Kitchin said, tears streaming down her cheeks. "He was so young, he had just graduated high school. He was in Vietnam just seven days."
A steady stream of visitors came to see the wall after an opening ceremony Thursday morning that featured a combined color guard of American Legion Post 57, AMVETS Post 202, and VWF Post 1307, all based in Elgin.
The wall is a symbol of the stories that Vietnam veterans would have told if they had survived, said speaker Deborah Grassman, author of "Peace At Last, a book of veterans' stories she gathered in her 25-year career as a nurse practitioner at a VA hospital in Florida.
Unlike veterans of previous wars, Vietnam veterans mostly were greeted by indifference or protests upon their return home. "I hope we have the courage to ask of Vietnam veterans to forgive us for how we let them down," she said.
Veteran Alex Sorton of Elgin said he and others who came back from Vietnam initially were not allowed to join veterans' organizations. "We were told we couldn't join because it wasn't a foreign war, it was a police action -- and that hurt."
Sorton found on the wall the names of two of his friends who were killed in Vietnam.
"It's very dramatic," he said. "It's bringing back memories of when we were attacked by the Viet Cong."
Elgin resident Carol Hotton said she had friends who fought in the Vietnam War, and survived.
"It was very moving," she said, her eyes welling up. "My heart goes out to the families that suffered these losses."
Visitors included a group of 28 seniors who are taking a class on the Vietnam War at Brother Rice High School in Chicago. "I thought it was a cool experience. Those were very good speeches," said 17-year-old Cullen Russell of Chicago.
Rosendo H. Burciaga of Elgin came with his 5-year-old grand daughter Catherine. "My granddaughter has been asking me a lot of questions about it, but I can't answer them all. I'm going to find more information when I get home."
For Kitchin, the lesson of the Vietnam War is to hold politicians and the military accountable for their actions.
"I still feel bitter, angry," she said. "But from that moment (my cousin's death) on, I became politically involved."
"The Wall That Heals" is a component of "The Big Read," a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. The Gail Borden Public Library was awarded a $16,000 grant for the program.
A ceremony and candlelight vigil honoring prisoners of war and those missing in action will take place at 7 p.m. Friday at the wall, 150 Dexter Court, between city hall and the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin.