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Update on meeting with Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund...

Greetings! As some of you know the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund contacted Del Francis and I a little over a week before Del finished his 1,550-mile ride from Texas to Washington, D.C. to help draw attention to this issue. And it worked! Kudos to Del! The arrival in D.C. was awesome. And we were contacted by the VVMF—unreal.

They wanted to meet with us at The Wall—which Del wouldn’t do because, in his words and the sentiments of many, it is incomplete. So we agreed to visit their office on the afternoon after Del’s ride to the Capitol. We got there a little after 4 p.m. on August 15, 2016, and were greeted with enthusiasm.

It was my idea to keep this meeting small because I worried that it could get bogged down with too much meeting and shaking hands, weather talk, etc., and not enough of what the families and survivors really need. And that is: real answers as to what is the holdup in Washington in getting 74 names added to The Wall when it is clear that the names warrant addition. As you know, I follow the issue closely, the nitty-gritty points and turns that have been made since I first came across this story in 2010. It was the point of Del’s ride, which began out of frustration: how long will we have to wait? I wanted the leaders of the VVMF to be candid with us. And they were.

The VVMF, which is, as some of you know, the organization founded by now-retired Jan Scruggs, who helped make The Wall a reality, had stood at an arm’s length from the ordeal in recent years. The last time the group publicly addressed the Evans issue was in a Senate hearing on June 3, 2003. Scruggs, speaking against the proposed Fairness to All Vietnam Veterans Act, stated that the bill would have paved the way for up to 1,000 name addition to the wall, at the tune of $3,200 a name.

Since Congressman Adam Schiff’s involvement in 2010 the group hasn’t said much publicly about the Evans’ 74, other than telling press that the decision is up to the Department of Defense. But, as Del and I learned in a productive and friendly meeting with Tim Tetz, outreach director with the VVMF, and Jim Knotts, the nonprofit’s president and chief executive officer, much has been said behind the scenes.

I was surprised just how much. And disappointed.

Congressman Schiff, for example, and his staff members have been aware for years of the most important hurdle in all of this: space on the wall. It came to light in 2014 when Schiff introduced the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, urging the Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to add the names to the wall. According to the VVMF, the Department of Defense has never considered space on the wall when it has added names year after year—there is wide dysfunctional disconnect between the DoD and the VVMF. It wasn’t until 2014, when surfaced the prospect of adding 74 names to the wall, that the issue was studied fully.

In that, with all the press and attention the USS Frank E. Evans has garnered since, has raised another issue: there are other groups of similar tragedies, where groups of individuals names were left off the wall. I do not know all the specifics, but as I stated in American Boys, there exists other groups of tragedies outside of the official combat zone for the Vietnam War. And those families want the same treatment as the Evans families. It’s why I have always pinned my own rationale, as made clear in the arguments set forth in my book, on the fact that the Evans received a unit commendation at the time of the sinking, one Vietnam Service Medal on 2 Jun 1969- (blank). That’s a combat medal. For a war. So to me and many others: they died in the war. I have said this many times: ask for an exception and you lose the case, because there are other groups. Focus on the ship’s record.

Jim Knotts made it clear in our meeting that a decision from the DoD is imminent. And you may see the favorable response you all have been praying and hoping for. Thanks to Sen. Chuck Schumer, this may be a reality soon. I got the sense that the VVMF is preparing for this.

And that long-awaited reality now sheds light on another reality: space on the memorial for the lost 74.

The men of the VVMF took their time explaining to Del and myself the challenges and it is something I want to make sure this group understands going forward. I think the USS Frank E. Evans will need to soon—as soon as possible and certainly before the reunion—draft a position statement on this because in the end, it could hurt the effort. Here are the realities:

  • The VVMF, in its own study of space on The Wall, found that 74 names would be dispersed around well over 20 different places on The Wall. There is no way the VVMF could keep such a large group of names together. I have understood this for a long time, having visited the wall and measured names, etc. It’s a reality I kept to myself for a long time, as I know this could upset people. And I’ve never wanted to do that. But it is time to understand that the insistence of keeping the 74 together could derail this effort entirely because it is simply not possible.

  • Full names. Please understand that as I write this I understand the pain it may cause some of you. I am a mother. Jim and Tim showed Del and I a sample panel in their office and on the second line was the same first name as that of my son. I can only imagine. So I know that this may break hearts. But it is another reality. The will have to resort to first initials and last names for the 74. In the guidebook and on the VVMF Web site, the name will be listed in their entirety. But not on the wall. It is another issue with space. Insisting the impossible—that all full names be added—will delay this process indefinitely, as there is simply limited space.

  • Approval processes to ensure that the additional names will be artistically sound. This is 74 names; the largest the VVMF has ever seen added. That said, there may be cases, with longer names, where the names could be added to bottom of the memorial, near where the panel numbers are listed. There would be a fight, as artists with to maintain the integrity of the design, the names lined up in a straight line. I am less worried about this issue, but it was mentioned so I am mentioning it here. I am not worried about hurting an artist’s feelings on this and I’m not sure why they would care so much. But as Jim and Tim indicated, they would... and it could add years to the addition of names.

Those are the points, in a nutshell. This will be about compromise. It is the only realistic way. I would like to address alternatives that have been raised at reunions and on social media. I have heard other suggestions tossed around from time to time: “add another panel,” “create our own memorial,” etc. As for adding a panel, the Vietnam Wall is a work of art, a sculpture in itself that tells the story of this war with the gradual rise in height of its panels. To “add a panel” would be to alter this sculpture to an unrecognizable form, and would require decades of renderings and proposals, and sure as those panels are black, decades of rejection. It will never happen.

On the idea of a standalone memorial, there are several places now in the country where are listed the lost 74, such “missing panel” memorials that are beautiful indeed but have done nothing to stop this decades-long effort to memorialize the 74. As I strongly feel, they belong on The Wall and no place else. As for a separate memorial in the National Mall; the idea is, simply put, absurd. Unfortunately, the Evans is just one in the hundreds of military tragedies that have ended American lives in this nation’s 200-plus-year history; there would be no green space anywhere in Washington if each was given space for its own memorial. The approval process isn’t even a reality for this, and would require a full-time staff. Even The Wall faced years of opposition. That said, a separate memorial or an added panel is not a reality, and I think it is in the best interest of the USS Frank E. Evans Association to nip these ideas in the bud.

In our meeting with the VVMF I made clear my disappointment in the fact that space on the wall has, in all likelihood, stalled this process. To paraphrase, I told them I want the DoD to stop telling the families that these men did not die in the war. It’s absurd, not just for the 74, for the what I understand as droves of American man who died in plane crashes and on other ships headed for Vietnam—albeit no official proof—to say that they did not die in the war. If there had been no Vietnam War, many would still be alive today. But I maintain that the USS Frank E. Evans has a strong case. The strongest case many have seen, and this is why I wrote American Boys, and this is why I suspect Del and I were invited to the VVMF’s office in Arlington.

This may really happen for the lost 74. It might not look like what we would have wanted it to look like. I told the VVMF gentlemen that it’s okay to say the creators of The Wall made a mistake in the 1980s, when the plans for the memorial were drafted, when the list was made. I wrote in the opening of American Boys that no one had a clear figure for how many were killed in Vietnam. The first tally ever made was for the The Wall. And they left a lot of people off it. That’s part of the story of this terrible era in American history; this terrible war that saw so many men lose their lives, so young. What’s not okay is to deny them based on sheer numbers. That we need to try. The 74 died young, like so many listed on that memorial, and they got medals for their service in the war zone.

I think the VVMF wants to work with the Evans families and survivors; they feel they will have to. That’s the sense I left with. Can the group of Evans families and survivors get on the same page and issue a statement to the VVMF and the DoD, indicating we all understand the realities of space on The Wall, along with the expectations as a group?

I also stated that I would assist the VVMF, upon approval of the addition of 74 names, with fund-raising. (The figure we were given on Monday is $5,000 per name.) The VVMF is now raising money for its museum. I feel the Vietnam War is an important piece of history that will get lost in the fabric of history if more is not done to tell these stories. I have shared this time and time again: I struggled to get a publisher not because of my skills as a journalist or my writing—I won five awards and the industry gold metal that is a Kirkus Star. There was a struggle because people do not buy Vietnam War books. The business people in publishing didn’t want to take a chance. Period. History will be lost without efforts like that museum.

So, because I believe strongly in the 74 names and the museum, I will most certainly help with fund-raising, writing a form letter for corporate donations, brainstorming, etc. If the 74 are on the wall and separated, the names with first initials and last names only, it will become part of the story of the lost 74. How they were excluded on the wall, and then added in this form as it was the only way—and that they were not forgotten and now, never can be.

I hope the Evans families and survivors can work together, so we can see this done once and for all. I had dinner with Ann Armstrong, sister of Alan Armstrong, in Arlington last night and she agrees that compromise will be our only hope. She's 76 now and if you read American Boys, you know the story: she was among those who were among the first to find our their brother's name was not listed among the dead. I think delaying the process with unrealistic proposals would stall the efforts to a freeze. How many have died waiting? I care so much about the families and survivors that it pains me to state that this, I fear, is the only way. This is the reality. That said, I think you should move on it.

--Louise Esola

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