WELLSBURG - As many scanned the West Virginia Vietnam Veterans Mobile Wall for the names of loved ones who were killed, prisoners of war or missing in action, state Sen. Robert "Rocky" Fitzsimmons, D-Wheeling, reflected on the speech he'd prepared for a service held to mark its arrival at Wellsburg's Central Park Monday.
Fitzsimmons, who serves on the state Legislature's veterans affairs committee, said the wall helps "to pay tribute to the 732 West Virginians who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms."
He said the state had the highest number of casualties per capita in the Vietnam War, and many West Virginians continue to make sacrifices as they serve in the U.S. military.
WALL?ASSEMBLED — Greg Cheeks of Wellsburg, far right, prepares to add a panel listing West Virginians who were prisoners of war or missing in action during the Vietnam War while Ed Gill, far left, and Michael Whitlatch, members of the Patriot Guard Riders install another panel. The motorcycle group, Red Knights West Virginia Chapter VI, members of 150th Army Aviation Battalion Company C of the West Virginia National Guard and local law enforcement escorted the wall to Wellsburg’s Central Park. -- Warren Scott
Fitzsimmons said with conflicts boiling in various parts of the world today, it's important for Americans to remember and pray for our servicemen and women.
"No matter what our positions on policy may be, we have to support our troops through our thoughts and our prayers," he said.
In addition to the 732 who died while serving in the war, the wall bears the names of 17 who were prisoners of war or declared missing in action. Established in 2013 by the West Virginia State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America in Nemours, W.Va., the wall is similar in design to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
But it differs in that it bears the names of West Virginians only. Leaders of the council said their goal is to take the wall throughout the state for people unable to view the monument in Washington or mobile replicas that travel throughout the U.S.
It will be on display through Wednesday, and visitors may create etchings from the wall using materials supplied by the council.
Greg Cheeks of Wellsburg said when he learned of the wall through the Internet, he set out to raise the money needed to bring it to Brooke County.
"After six months of planning, it finally came together," he said after it was assembled Monday morning by members of the Patriot Guard Riders and other volunteers. The motorcycle group joined members of Red Knights West Virginia Chapter VI, the firefighters motorcycle group; 150th Army Aviation Battalion Company C of the West Virginia National Guard and local law enforcement in escorting the wall from Weirton, where representatives of the state council are staying, to the park.
As it passed the Follansbee American Legion Post on state Route 2, members of the Ohio Valley Veterans Memorial Square fired their rifles to deliver a military salute.
Jim Bissett, a Red Knights member from Weirton and Vietnam War veteran, said, "I feel it's an honor that we were asked to escort it."
"I'm glad my name is not on it," he added, as his wife, Judy, noted their daughter was 5 months old when he saw her personally for the first time.
When several volunteers finished assembling the wall, Cheeks remarked," God, that looks pretty. I just hope I can hold it together tonight."
Cheeks, who served the Army in Thailand during the war, said there are names of classmates on the wall but to speak of them "is tough."
Brooke County Commissioner Tim Ennis, who turned out with fellow commissioner Jim Andreozzi to welcome the group, said a cousin, James Lester Ennis, was killed in the war.
Andreozzi recalled coming head to head with opposition against the war as a teen.
"I got in some trouble because I wore my father's Army uniform (worn by him during the Korean War) to school," he said, adding it resulted in his being sent home from school.
"My dad told me he was proud of me. He said it would have been easy to side with the anti-war sentiment," he said, adding, "Nobody was for the war, but I just wanted to support the troops."
The Rev. Rudy McAllister, pastor of Mount Olivet Baptist Church and a member of the 911th Wing of the Air Force Reserve, said the wall's visit is an opportunity to give all Vietnam War veterans the respect they should have received when they returned home.
"These guys are overdue for the respect and the honor that (now) is given to them," said McAllister, who served in Operations Desert Storm, Desert Shield and Iraqi Freedom.
McAllister offered opening and closing prayers for the service. Also participating were the Ohio Valley Veterans Memorial Squad, Toni Taylor, who performed the national anthem; and Brooke High School band director Johnny Leonard and his student, Lindsay Six, who played taps.
Alan Brown, a Vietnam War veteran from Wellsburg, said his uncle, Rodney Craft, a Marine, was among the first Brooke County casualties in the war.
"He was actually 6 months younger than me. We were more like brothers than uncle and nephew. I was in boot camp when he was killed by a booby trap," Brown said.
Retired teacher Carol Churchman noted another casualty was Joe Funk II. She knew Funk's mother Dorothy, who was then a librarian at Wellsburg Middle School; and father, Joe Funk I.
She said of the Funks, who now are deceased, "That was their only son, and I know that hurt them deeply. But they were very patriotic and kept his name alive."
Churchman said Dorothy Funk wrote poems that expressed both her love for her son and spirit of patriotism.
In addition to Ennis, Craft and Funk, the Brooke County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation has identified the following Brooke County veterans killed during the war: David W. Beeman, Dennis Bucklew, Mark D. Cool, Harold C. Dawson Jr., Robert V. Durbin, Richard E. Gillies Jr., Paul S. Goggin, Thomas C. Jones Jr., Harry E. Lauck, Robert L. Lazear, Robert B. Mossgrove, John D. Olenick, Joseph Perito, Raymond P. Salzarulo Jr. and Ray O. Simons Jr.
Cheeks expressed thanks to all who have supported the wall's visit in various ways, from Cindy Mott, a chief financial supporter; to the city's three florists, who donated wreaths; and the Robert Scott Lumber Co., which provided the plywood base for it.
Mott said she was moved to support the project in honor of her father, retired Army Chief Warrant Officer Robert E. Bunting. A Pennsylvania resident, he is too ill to visit the site, but she plans to send him photographs, she said.
Cheeks also thanked Bruce Hunter, a member of Wellsburg Council and the Wellsburg 4th of July Committee, for serving as his liaison to both groups.
The wall's visit was timed to coincide with the city's weeklong Independence Day celebration, which continues with free concerts at 7 p.m. today, Wednesday and Thursday at Central Park; several activities on July 4 and the Anything That Floats Race at 1 p.m. July 5.
For a full schedule, visit www.wellsburg4thofjuly.com.