Pete Atherine stood in front of The Moving Wall visibly shaken, folder in his hand, his wife, Barb, by his side.
The names of five neighborhood friends killed in Vietnam were in the folder.
Pete came to Elmore last Saturday to finally say goodbye. He had missed all five funerals. In 1968 and 1969, he too was serving his country, first for nine months in training stateside and then one year at Phu Lam, a major communications center on the outskirts of Saigon.
|A makeshift memorial at The Moving Wall.
(Press photo by Ken Grosjean)
All five friends were killed in combat. Pete sought out their names: Clifford Edward Bryan, 20, killed by small arms fire on January 25, 1968; Bobby Lee McCoy, 21, killed by multiple fragmentation wounds on July 2, 1969; Victor Thomas Shaffer, 20 killed by explosive device on June 19, 1969; Howard Michael Thompson, 24, killed by small arms fire on May 2, 1968 and Kenneth Michael Watson, 22, killed by small arms fire on April 13, 1968.
Four of these friends went to Woodward with Pete, one to Macomber. They played pick-up ball at Riverside Park, Joe E. Brown Field and the Friendly Center. They hung out at The Yum, Yum, a Summit Street restaurant owned by Pete’s father, Everett Atherine.
None had a college deferment, which would have kept them out of the draft.
“In our neighborhood, we all worked in factories,” Pete said. “In the environment we grew up in we never thought about going to college.”
Pete attended Penta County Technical Institute for one year to study mechanical engineering. However, he landed a summer job with the railroad and the money was so good he couldn’t see himself back in school. So, he rolled the dice and gave up his deferment. He was drafted in January 1968.
That decision to drop out led to a tour of duty in America’s most unpopular war, but it also led to stroke of good luck. His training in the communications department at what is now Norfolk Southern Railway led to the non-combat position at Phu Lam.
It also led to a degree of survivor’s guilt. Barb Atherine, who spent a number of years working as a Registered Nurse in a psychiatric unit, said her husband would talk about how unfair it was that he came back and his friends didn’t. The Moving Wall helped Pete deal with that, she said.
“He needed to go so bad and he really did get to say goodbye to those guys…He was more emotional walking up to The Wall. About a block away he got tearful…Once he touched that wall and saw their names he found some peace. He really did.”
Pete agrees. “I thought about these guys a lot. I went to pay my respects. It was kind of a closure for me. I wasn’t home when they passed away and were buried. My wife would send me letters saying so-and-so got killed…I really missed a lot…I was surprised how peaceful The Wall was. It was a good way to say goodbye to those guys. It was sad.”
Pete is 64. He retired from Norfolk Southern. He and Barb live in Oregon.
Mike Amor, 61, drove in from Fremont to pay his respects to two friends: James Robert Burke, 19, killed by small arms fire and Robert Flores, 19, killed in an air crash.
The three attended Fremont Ross High School together. Mike said this replica of the memorial in Washington D.C. “was very professional. It was very moving for me. I’m a big military fan. They’re my heroes.”
Ron Distel, an Air Force veteran who served a year in Vietnam, and members of Elmore American Legion Post 279, deserve credit for raising $12,000 to bring The Vietnam Combat Veterans Moving Wall to Elmore. This half-scale replica was here for five days and was seen by about 6,500 people.
There are 58,272 names on the wall, nearly 200 from Northwest Ohio. I said goodbye to three high school classmates, one of whom lived in my neighborhood.
Vietnam was the most divisive war in our history. For the first time, television brought the reality of war into the homes of the average American and the press was allowed uncensored access. When the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the media showing our government lied about casualty totals and success rates in battle, the tipping point had been reached.
The public also questioned the fairness of the draft. Those who attended college could get a deferment to bypass the draft and others with political connections could enlist in the reserves and stay stateside.
The unpopularity of the draft led to the draft lottery held on December 1, 1969. September 14, the first day chosen, almost guaranteed a trip to Vietnam for those without a deferment. President Richard Nixon ended the draft in 1973, but not before 195 birthdates had been chosen.
All this led to another tragic mistake—we, as a people, vilified our soldiers when they came home. That mistake has been corrected and we’ve done a much better job welcoming back soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Moving Wall is a healing place that also helps rectify that mistake.