Since its dedication in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., has provided a moving experience for friends, loved ones, and fellow citizens of the nearly 60,000 service members whose names are inscribed on its granite walls.
Not everyone who’d like to experience the wall is able to, however. Whether hobbled by health issues, distance, or the means to travel, they’re unable to join the more than 3 million people who visit the wall each year.
So Doc Russo brings the wall to them.
His Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall is a 3/5-scale replica of the original one, stretching nearly 300 feet from end to end and standing 6 feet tall in the center. From Sept. 25 through 29, the wall will stand at Riverview Beach Park in Pennsville, N.J., in honor of the 33 Salem County veterans listed on the wall, alongside more than half a million compatriots. The wall will be accessible 24 hours a day throughout that period, with volunteers on hand to guide visitors to specific names.
“There are a lot of people who will never make that trip to Washington,” said Russo, a Navy veteran from Brevard County, Florida, who served in Panama, Granada, Lebanon, and the first Gulf War. “Last year we were set up in Easton, Md.” — located just 70 miles from the Vietnam Memorial in the nation’s capital — “and we had over 10,000 people come out to see the Traveling Wall in four days.”
Between April and November each year, Russo logs nearly 45,000 miles in his Chevy pickup, hauling the aluminum replica around the country in a 36-foot trailer. A team of local volunteers, veterans, and civilians erect the wall’s panels when it arrives, a process that takes three to four hours.
Russo is the president of the Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, which hosts one of the largest annual veterans’ reunions in the country. For many years, the organization imported a half-scale replica wall that was administered by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund for the event. Then one year it failed to arrive.
“We said ‘To heck with that, we’re gonna build our own,' ” said Russo.
The wall that Russo brings to Pennsville this month is one of at least five that traverse the country. The Brevard wall, like the half-scale version toured by the Veterans Memorial Fund (known as The Wall That Heals), is a nonprofit venture; others, each an independent undertaking, are for-profit and charge admission. Costs for the Brevard wall are taken on by local veterans’ organizations like the coalition in Pennsville, with donations from local benefactors (PSE&G made a major contribution towards the Pennsville wall stop).
As manager of the wall, Russo accepts 15 to 18 events from the roughly 300 requests that he receives each year. Wholly responsible for the decision, he largely relies on instinct.
“It has a lot to do with just talking to people,” he explained. “I’ve developed quite a knack over the years where I can pretty much tell if people want it for the right reason. It’s not going to be a sideshow attraction at a county fair; it’s not going to be on the infield at a NASCAR event. That isn’t what the wall is about.”
The coalition of Salem County veterans that came together to bring the wall to Pennsville agrees. Marine Corps veteran Joseph Hannagan will serve as master of ceremonies for the opening of the wall on Wednesday, Sept. 25, where a number of area political and military figures will speak.
“It will be hallowed ground,” Hannagan said. “It’s a memorial for the people that served, and to allow [visitors] to get a feeling of closure. I don’t think people really understand what our servicemen have gone through to have that flag flying every day. This helps remind people.”
Navy veteran Dan Reilly, chairperson of the veterans committee formed to host the wall in Pennsville, echoed those sentiments from a deeply personal perspective.
“I served during the Vietnam War,” he said. “I lost friends. I see the way the country is today, and the Vietnam War should not be forgotten. Veterans of the Second World War and the Korean War are dying off. It’s important we remember the men and women who served and sacrificed for our freedoms.”
Having visited the original wall in D.C., Reilly stressed the emotional impact that the memorial has on visitors. A mobile health unit will be on site to aid anyone distressed by the experience. “I have a lot of friends who served in Vietnam, and I’ve heard from some of them that they never went to Washington because they really didn’t think they could handle it. But they’re going to give this a shot.”
Russo has heard veterans and family members share similar thoughts throughout his travels. “I was in West Virginia a couple years ago in this little-bitty town up in the mountains,” he recalled. “At the end of the week this little old lady came up and asked to give me a hug. She said, ‘This is the first time in 47 years my son’s been home. He’s still missing.’ That’s why we do what we do.”