Volunteers guard veterans memorial overnight in Elgin
In the stillness of the night, interrupted only by the occasional train horn, volunteers Don Wells and Bill Glisson had plenty of time to take in the full, emotional impact of the legacy of the Vietnam War.
"It's kind of eerie but sad," Wells, of Roselle, said before the sun was up early Friday morning about "The Wall That Heals," a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., that is making a four-day stop in Elgin.
Altogether, the wall has 58,249 names of veterans who died in the conflict, including Wells' cousin.
"It's what freedom costs. That's the price they paid for it," Wells said.
Glisson, of Batavia, agreed.
"It's such a solemn place."
Nearly 200 volunteers from across the Fox Valley, many of them veterans, are taking turns through Sunday to keep an eye on the memorial 24 hours a day, both to serve as guides and prevent vandalism.
Wells and Glisson took on the most arduous shift -- 11 p.m. Thursday to 5 a.m. Friday. They were to repeat the 11 p.m.-5 a.m. shift Friday night into Saturday. Their few visitors on the first shift were a man who came to see the memorial around 11:30 p.m., and Elgin police officers, they said.
The two, who are friends through a motorcycle club that meets at Batavia VFW Post 1197, used the hours to observe, and absorb the importance of, the memorial during the early morning hours.
They slowly walked the perimeter of the 250-foot wall, carefully reading names and the 40 or so plaques that highlight Fox Valley area veterans.
They also closely examined the exhibit portion of the memorial, including purple hearts, military dog tags, and plenty of photos and letters, both detailing veterans' eagerness to come home and their relatives' sorrow at their loss.
"What got me the most are the boots, and thinking what happened to the man who wore them," Wells said. "That got me choked up."
Neither Wells nor Glisson is a Vietnam veteran, but the war figured prominently in their childhoods.
Both saw plenty of gory photographs taken by older relatives who served in Vietnam and who told harrowing war tales. "The smell. They always talked about the smell," Glisson said.
Both said that in some way, their childhoods had an impact on their choice to serve, Wells in the U.S. Army and Glisson as a police sergeant for the Kane County Forest Preserve.
The memorial exemplifies newfound respect for Vietnam veterans' service, said Jack Darr of Elgin, who served in Vietnam as a medic in the U.S. Air Force. Coming home, many veterans were greeted by indifference or scorn.
"We knew about the war protests, but you never expected to face the same thing as you walked through the airport (coming home)," said Darr, a board member for VFW Post 1307 in Elgin, who volunteered for a 5 a.m. shift every day through Sunday.
"People are coming around to understand that they didn't treat the Vietnam veterans very kindly," he said.
"Since the Gulf War, they've found out that you don't punish the soldiers for what the politicians get into."