Vietnam Veterans Memorial ‘still a special, powerful place’ after 25 years

Twenty-five years later, the Mecklenburg County Vietnam Veterans Memorial still holds its potent powers.

It still draws tears and reflection, flowers and American flags stuck into the joints of the Georgia granite panels. It still educates, particularly those who came after the Vietnam War, about the struggle that divided a country – and devastated more than 56,000 American families.

Tuesday, 2 1/2 decades after it was dedicated, a quaint and respectful crowd gathered at the memorial to recall the 105 men – many mere boys then – from Mecklenburg whose names are etched into the sweeping wall at Thompson Park between Third and Fourth streets near uptown.

Some in the crowd of about 40 had visited the memorial many times since Veterans Day 1989. For others, among them Vietnam veterans, Veterans Day 2014 was their first visit.

“If no one else had come but one who had never been here before, it’d be a spectacular day,” said Stu Malter, who spent three tours in Vietnam and helped raise the $356,000 for the memorial. “It made all the struggles to get this memorial up worthwhile.”

During a brief, but stirring ceremony, Skip Gribble of Charlotte spoke. His brother Bobby’s name is on the memorial. Bobby, an N.C. State graduate and father of two young daughters, had joined the Army and was eight months into a yearlong tour when he was killed during a mine sweep operation in South Vietnam.

On Memorial and Veterans days, Skip visits the memorial, then Bobby’s grave at Charlotte’s Evergreen Cemetery on Central Avenue.

At the memorial, he traces the letters of Bobby’s name and reflects.

“We must continually remind ourselves of the cost of freedom,” Skip Gribble told the gathered. “The men on this wall are people who made the ultimate sacrifice. They came from this community. They were sons. They were husbands. They were fathers – and brothers. My brother’s name is there. I will never forget what they did for us.”

‘It is still so powerful’

Even before it was dedicated, the memorial had the power to suture old wounds. Workers broke ground for the memorial on Memorial Day 1989, months before Hurricane Hugo tore up Charlotte.

Mothers worked their way through the construction site and cried when they saw their sons’ names. Workers found burned candles along the walkway and flags stuck in the ground or joints of the 187 panels that along with the names of the dead tell the story of the Vietnam War.

On Veterans Day 1989, with the city still under repair, a huge crowd gathered at Thompson Park to dedicate the memorial. Among the crowd was Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded all troops in Vietnam.

Teresia Elliott was also there.

The name of her brother, Tony McCarthy, is on the wall. A grenade killed him on May 16, 1967, nine months into his tour.

Since the memorial’s dedication, Elliott has shipped or brought wreaths to place near her brother’s name seven times each year.

Tuesday, Elliott wasn’t at the memorial, but a wreath for McCarthy had beaten the crowd there. Her husband Jay’s family had held a family reunion a week earlier and they brought it then.

“I promised Tony I’d do that until my last breath,” Elliott said Tuesday, back in Florida where she and Jay now live. “It’s the least I can do for my brother. That memorial brings me so close to him and the other men. It is so peaceful next to the (St. Mary’s) chapel. It is still so powerful.”

‘Such a special place’

Barbara Whitt came for the first time. She knew one of the names on the wall, Ansel Morse, a classmate at Garinger High School.

“I don’t know why I’ve never come here before,” Whitt said. “I knew about it, but never fit it in. I was going with a guy who went to Vietnam. His helicopter got shot down, but he survived. The country was so divided over that war, and the guys who fought never got the recognition they deserved. I am so happy to see that’s starting to turn around.”

It was Paul Eddy’s first trip to the memorial, too. A retired airline pilot, he was a squad leader in the Army’s 1st Cavalry and survived the war’s first major battle, staged in the Ia Drang River Valley of South Vietnam in late 1965.

Tuesday, he wore a Purple Heart medal pinned to a leather aviator jacket.

“I am so moved by this memorial and embarrassed that I didn’t know about it,” Eddy said. “I will come here often from now on.”

Sue Armstrong needed no introduction to the memorial. Her late husband, Bob Armstrong, a well-decorated Vietnam veteran who spent years advocating for the return of POWs, had helped craft the memorial’s timeline. After he died last year, his funeral was held at the memorial. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

“If he was still alive, he’d be here today even if I had to wheel him in a hospital bed,” Sue said. “Part of him is here. Part of him is this memorial. It is still such a special place.”

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