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A symbol of sacrifice

Emotions run high during opening ceremony for traveling Vietnam Wall

Posted: September 27, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 27, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Spencer Matteson, from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry of the U.S. Army weapons platoon, rubs names from the American Veterans Traveling Tribute Memorial Wall at the Westfield Valencia Town Center on Thursday. Matteson lost five personal friends in his platoon during the war. Photo by Charlie Kaijo.

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There were 14 guests of honor at the opening ceremonies held for the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall on Thursday — but none of them were there.

Fourteen white chairs roped off near the front of the stage remained empty in honor of the 14 local servicemen whose names were listed among the more than 58,000 who gave their lives during the Vietnam War.

Hundreds showed up Thursday night at Westfield Valencia Town Center mall parking lot near Citrus Street and Magic Mountain Parkway to help pay tribute to the Vietnam War’s fallen, but not forgotten.

It was the official opening of the AVTT Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, which will remain in the Santa Clarita Valley through Sunday, open 24 hours a day for those who want to visit it.

There was Jan Carlson, who traveled from Lake Elizabeth with her granddaughter, Amber, to find the name of Kim Kimura. She had known Kimura since elementary school back in Idaho.

“He was a very quiet man,” she said. “He died a few days after arriving in Vietnam.”

There was Leroy Martinez, one of eight brothers who grew up in Newhall, each oneof them a United States Marine who served in Vietnam.

“We all made it back,” he said, turning away from the 300-foot-long black monument containing the names of U.S. servicemen killed in battle. The wall is an 80-percent-sized replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

“I’m here for my cousin,” Martinez said, holding up a piece of paper bearing the name “Ernest L. Perez,” a pencil rubbing made from the wall’s engraving. “Not just to honor him, but to honor all the people of all the (armed) services.”

The same scene was played out repeatedly in front of the wall — someone with gray hair, down on one knee, running a finger along an engraved portion of the wall as someone younger stood behind him, and someone younger still, a child, stood with that person.

Vietnam veteran Spencer Matteson and his family drove to the Santa Clarita Valley from Los Angeles to visit the wall.

“These guys all died at the same time, 1966, at LZ Bird, the Central Highland — these are five guys who were in my platoon,” he said, his eyes red. His family stood nearby.

“We had 34 taken in that one day,” he said.

Matteson clutched five pieces of paper, five names on the wall: Paul Jackson, Freddie Burnette, Gary Peasley, Jerald Wallace and Larry Joe Willis.

“We all called him Joe,” Matteson said, recalling the man he had known since both were children in Illinois. The two went through basic training together.

Only one returned home to America to raise a family and one day find a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall close enough to visit.

Official ceremonies got under way at 6 p.m. After Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar led more than 200 seated guests in the Pledge of Allegiance and an invocation was given by Real LifeChurch’s Rusty George, attention turned to the 14 chairs left empty near the stage.

Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, pointed to the 14 designated chairs in front of him.

“They were somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s father,” he said. “So while we mourn their loss, let’s take time to pray for their families.”

Vietnam veteran Bill Reynolds read the names of 47 servicemen killed in his platoon on June 19, 1967, pausing a couple of times when his voice cracked and his chin quivered.

“Before the grace of God go I,” he said. “Because my name could have been on that wall.”
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