By: Joleene DesRosiers Moody
MEXICO, NY – The clouds above the Edick-Hamlink VFW in Mexico look threatening Thursday evening. A light drizzle begins to fall as Dawson Hayden of Fulton leans closer into the black wall that stretches out before him.
He glances up at me and then turns back to the wall.
“I’m looking for nine boys I loaded onto a helicopter on the 15th of June in 1967,” he said.
“What are their names?” I ask him. “I can help.”
He produces a piece of paper with the names of nine enlisted men and one lieutenant.
“Chase, Davis, Sanchez – there are more. Here,” he says pointing to the paper. And then he says again, “I loaded nine boys onto a helicopter. They were all young boys. Some of them weren’t even 20.”
He laughs nervously as he shifts his eyes from the wrinkled paper to the wall.
“We walked into an ambush,” he remembers. “We were getting shot at from one village and so we went through another village. They were shooting at us from the tree line on the other side. The next thing we knew, we were caught in what they call a horseshoe ambush. They were shooting at us from three sides. Before we got done, those nine boys were dead.”
Together we find a few of the names toward the bottom of the panel, a difficult task when you consider there are 58, 271 other names total etched on the wall. The panels, however, are separated by day and year of death, minimizing the search for Hayden.
“It was like it was yesterday,” he tells me as he touches one of the names.
Behind us, opening ceremonies are about to begin. Senator Patty Ritchie is on hand. The honor guard is lined up, their rifles stiffly by their sides. Close to 200 people gather around a small, white tent, meant to keep a podium and accompanying wires dry. I thumb through the program handed to me by a volunteer.
The American Veterans Traveling Tribute is a veteran-owned project committed to traveling across the U.S. to honor, respect and remember those who served.
It is 360 feet long, end to end, and its tallest point is 8-feet high.
Its magnitude, however, rests not with its length or height, but with the thousand of names that remind us of the sacrifices made in a place that has been described time and time again as a living hell.
Kenneth Bundy of Pulaski remembers the hell.
But today, he chooses to embrace the memory of those that are no longer here.
“For me this wall brings back a lot of memories of time served in Vietnam. There are two good friends of mine on that panel there,” he said as he points to a portion of the wall as his voice trails off. He swallows hard and turns back to me. It takes him a moment to find his voice again. When he does, he says, “It’s like having them home.”
I nod. There is a lump in my throat.
“It never stops, because you always think of all that they have missed,” he tells me. “Every thing good that I have, they never had a chance to have. And I will never let their memory die because of that. That’s why I come to events like this.”
I thank Kenneth for his time and walk slowly back to the pavilion where my 8-year-old daughter waits for me. She has never seen the wall. She doesn’t even know what it is.
“Come with me,” I say to her.
Together, we walk to where Dawson Hayden stood just moments before. I explain to her that the wall is a replica of the original in Washington, D.C. I tell her what it means.
She is in awe at the number of names.
“They all died?” she asks me.
“Yep. With honor,” I reply.
She looks up and down the panel before us. And then she looks at me.
“Wow. Those men were brave.”
The respect that veterans Dawson Hayden and Kenneth Bundy have for their comrades is immeasurable. It is honorable and runs deep.
The respect that visitors have is also palpable, and fills the crowd with a sense of pride. Twenty-two of the names on the memorial are Oswego County veterans, yet every single name on the wall reminds us of what was, what is, and what we hope will never again be.
The wall is available to the public for viewing at the Edick-Hamlink VFW in Mexico for 24 hours until Sunday.
There will be a closing ceremony at 4 p.m. The wall will be disassembled at 6 p.m.