2013-08-13 / Front Page

Crowd Of Well Over 500 Attends Thursday’s Opening Ceremonies For ‘The Moving Wall’

by Michael Stanley
Staff Writer

Owen County resident and Vietnam War veteran, Jim Coppedge, speaks to the crowd gathered for Thursday’s opening ceremonies. Coppedge read from a letter that his uncle had left for his aunt during his service in World War I, in the event he would happen to be killed in action. (Staff Photo) Owen County resident and Vietnam War veteran, Jim Coppedge, speaks to the crowd gathered for Thursday’s opening ceremonies. Coppedge read from a letter that his uncle had left for his aunt during his service in World War I, in the event he would happen to be killed in action. (Staff Photo) Vietnam veterans, family members, and countless others made their way to the Owen County Fairgrounds to take part in Thursday evening’s opening ceremonies for “The Moving Wall,” a half-scale replica of the national Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

After months of fundraising, working with community leaders and local veteran’s organizations, the 60 members of the Owen County 4-H Fishing Team saw their efforts pay off in an emotional way as many among the crowd of well over 500 could been seen wiping away tears during the opening ceremonies.

Freedom Baptist Church Reverend David Freeman, a World War II veteran of the U.S. Army, told those in attendance that while he wasn’t in support of the United State’s involvement in the Vietnam War, he always held a special prayer session during church service for those service members and their families.

“One day as I was standing at the entrance, greeting people as they left, a lady said she was sick and tired of my prayers. I said, ‘That’s too, too bad. I can see right now that you don’t have a son or grandson involved in this, so maybe you might have some sympathy if you really have a Christian spirit,” Freeman recalled, moment’s before beginning Thursday’s opening prayer.

Local Vietnam era veteran Jim Coppedge served as the evening’s first guest speaker, sharing a letter written near the end of World War I by his uncle, JD Atwood, who penned the letter to Coppedge’s aunt in November of 1918 while serving in Belgium.

“It is one of those letters, the one that is mailed if the person who wrote it doesn’t come home. He did, he never gave it to my aunt for a number of years. He finally gave it to her late in their marriage and she gave it to me and I transcribed it,” Coppedge explained. “This was four days before the Armistice. He was from Roswell, New Mexico, a member of the militia and had volunteered to join and was a lieutenant colonel of infantry.”

Coppedge himself served as a flight deck trouble shooter in the Navy Reserves.

“My service was typical as I know the overwhelming majority of the names on that wall, contrary to a myth about Vietnam, we weren’t all draftees. The overwhelming majority were volunteers, the overwhelming majority on that wall were volunteers,” he explained. “The question is why? Whether you’re dodging propeller blades or jet blasts or bullets or hand grenades, mortars or whatby ever, they can all kill you... so why be there? Why volunteer for something like that? I think JD had it right in 1918; he was an attorney and he was trained to look at the central issue, the core of a meaning of complex things. In his letter I think he found that core. Sure, you do what you do for your loved ones, and for your country. But there is a deeper reason for that – duty. Yes, duty to loved ones and duty to country, but also, simply duty. That thing you know to be right, even if you can’t completely explain it. It’s that greater idea that rises above and even motivates our feelings of devotion to family and country. As JD said 95 years ago, he did what he did to prevent a duty going unperformed and I suspect many of the men and women listed over there, whether they can explain why they were, where they were, when they were, would have said much the same thing. They felt they had a duty, they were not going to default on that duty. That is all that can be asked of anyone and worthy are they who rise to the occasion. I hope we can always remember that a simple statement of purpose written almost a century ago, but still as applicable today as it was then, that when the situation demands, we, as did all of them, will not let a duty go unperformed.”

Indiana’s only living Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Retired Army Sergeant First Class Sammy Davis of Freedom, noted that, in all, 31 of his fellow brothers in arms laid down their lives on November 19, 1968. Each can be found listed on The Wall.

“These men and women on that wall, their average age was 19, and if we do not remember them, there is no one else who will. The overwhelming majority of people on that wall were too young to have families. There are many who did, but most did not, so when I have the privilege of being at the wall, it always makes my heart feel good to look out and see all those who have came to remember my brothers and sisters and their sacrifice,” Davis said. “They would ask of you to always stand up firmly for what you know is right in your heart, that is how we can give these men and women peace.”

Davis told of how not writing to his mother for a 63-day period while in Vietnam led to a harmonica care package and eventually a love for playing ‘Shenandoah’ for all of his brothers and sisters, especially E-6 Sergeant Johnston Dunlop, whose name is listed on panel 50-east.

“John would sit down there in my foxhole; he would look out toward the perimeter and I don’t remember ever seeing him fall asleep, but his eyes would be heavy. He would sit there for an hour or two and I would play ‘Shenandoah’ over and over and over again,” Davis recalled. “He would start stirring and then he would say, ‘Thanks, Sam, that’s the best rest I’ve had for weeks.’ He’d gather his crew and go back out through the wire before daylight came.”

After helping to dedicate the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. in 1982, Davis played harmonica for his brothers early one morning and then played for Dunlop at panel 50, with few people around and his eyes closed.

“I found Johnston’s name. I said, ‘John, I’m going to play ‘Shenandoah’ again for you, brother. I hope it brings peace to your heart and hope to your soul. It was about two o’clock in the morning and before I closed my eyes, there were about 25 vets there. I started playing and in my mind’s eye I’m back in Vietnam, sitting in my foxhole, watching John,” he said. “I played it through several times and when I was through I put the harp back in my pocket, opened my eyes, looked up and down the wall and there were about 300 vets there. My brothers had been up in the woods looking over their brothers’ names and when they heard the harmonica, they all came down. That started the tradition, because now wherever Dixie (his wife) and I go to talk to our military, there will be young troops who come up and say, ‘Sergeant Davis, do you have your harmonica with you?’ I’ve had the privilege of doing that in almost every country in the world that we have military in.”

U.S. Army and Vietnam War veteran Ed “Pappy” Westgate of Spencer served with the 11th Cavalry in 1969 and 1970 in Vietnam, and remained in activity duty until 1972. Much of his time was spent as a door gunner on an HU-1 Huey helicopter operating a 60-caliber machine gun. He said being able to sit inside an identical seat on Thursday evening brought back many memories. Westgate also expressed his pride in the local kids from the Owen County 4-H Fishing Team for bringing “The Moving Wall” to Spencer.

“I’m impressed that today’s younger generation did something like this. They took it upon themselves to do it, to raise the money to do it... it’s great,” Westgate said. “I’m proud of them. That was $8,500 they had to raise to get the wall here, plus the helicopter. That kind of puts your faith back into the younger generation now.”

Thursday was a special day for Westgate, marking 43 years to the day he was last in Vietnam. He said he was able to finally make peace with losing 10 of his closest friends, battle brothers whose names all appear on the wall together on the same panel.

Fellow Vietnam War and U.S. Army veteran, Gary Britton of Spencer was also pleased with the fishing team’s efforts during Thursday’s opening ceremonies.

“It’s a tearjerker, it truly is. You look at the names on that wall and you think, well that could have been me or anybody,” Britton explained. “But I thank God that I’m back. I look at the list of local men who were killed and I knew some of those boys, and they are sadly missed.”

Owen County Veterans Service Officer Ron Morley said the fishing team deserves plenty of praise for their efforts, along with team leader Kathy Newman Arthur.

“How many of the kids nowadays would have a project to bring ‘The Moving Wall’ to their community? These are average kids of all ages and they do so much for this community that so many people don’t even realize they do,” Morley said.

A U.S. Navy and Vietnam War veteran, Morley served from 1963 through 1964, first on LST boats running supplies before running PBR river boats.

“They do a lot for the veterans and this is one great thing that they brought this wall in for the veterans. It’s just outstanding, I just hope the community realizes what the 4-H fishing team is all about,” Morley noted. “You couldn’t get a lot of kids around to even think about using a rag to wipe something off, but these kids were down there early this morning, wiping that wall from one end to the other. They helped set it up, they got the funds raised. I think every Vietnam veteran thanks them, because there are a lot of old Vietnam vets who, unless they see this one, won’t get to see what it looks like.”

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