City welcomes The Wall That Heals

By LISA CAPOBIANCO

STAFF WRITER

Mia Sorel and her 7-year-old sister Allie remained silent as they viewed over 58,000 names of the men and women who lost their lives or went missing during the Vietnam War.

The names were listed by day of casualty on “The Wall That Heals,” a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., which visited Bristol last week. As they saw The Wall displayed on the Memorial Boulevard last Thursday for the first time, Mia and Allie wrote down some names that stood out to them. The sisters, who live in Bristol, planned to research these men and women so they would never forget the sacrifices made during the war.

“Living history is much better than history found in a textbook,” said their mother, Katie Sorel, who home schools her daughters. “My hope is that bringing [my daughters here], their freedom becomes much more real to them.”

Approximately 250 feet in length and erected in a chevron-shape like the original Memorial, The Wall has traveled to hundreds of communities nationwide, including Bristol in 1998. From June 8 to 12, The Wall returned to Bristol, bringing in countless visitors from the city and beyond.

Since the announcement of The Wall’s return, the American Legion Post 2, along with a number of local individuals and organizations banned together to organize the weekend-long event. From recognizing Gold Star Families to a motorcycle ride to living history displays, the weekend was filled with festivities—all organized by volunteers.

During a grand opening ceremony last Thursday, city and state leaders, along with veterans and families celebrated The Wall’s entrance to Bristol while thanking those who defended their country during the war.

Connecticut alone has over 70,000 veterans from the Vietnam War era.

“We remember particularly the more than 600 Connecticut veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam for us as a nation,” said Sean Connelly, commander of the state’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

“It was unfortunate that the soldiers that returned didn’t get the honor they deserved,” said Mayor Ken Cockayne. “Today they are getting it, and it’s nice to see.”

Unveiled by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund on Veterans Day 1996, The Wall has three main parts: The Wall replica, the mobile education center, and the information center. The education center displays photos of service members whose names are on The Wall, as well as letters and memorabilia left at The Wall in D.C. and a chronological overview of the conflict in Vietnam.

“At that time, I had no idea how it would affect my life,” said Vietnam veteran Dan Thurston, a former commander of the CT Legion. “When we returned to Vietnam, we got shunned.”

Besides American Vietnam veterans, the city also honored the service and sacrifice of the Lao/Hmong Special Guerilla Unit, a secret army of multi-ethnic Laotian freedom fighters recruited by the U.S. to provide aid to American troops during the war. Tens of thousands of SGU soldiers lost their lives, and today their story is being told after their service was an unknown part of America’s intervention in Southeast Asia for decades.

At the end of the war, they came to the U.S. where they have been honorable citizens, said Russ Trudel, Commander of American Legion Post 2.

“These guys went from start to finish of the Vietnam War,” said Trudel. “They’ve done a lot for our troops.”

“The government would never admit…that those operations took place,” said Thurston. “But without them, we would have lost a lot more American lives.”

General Sar Phouthasack was one of those veterans who served in the SGU from 1960 to 1975. During that time he struggled for survival in the jungles of North Vietnam and parachuted behind enemy lines. Sar also experienced the disappearance of his father and the loss of many allies.

Today, the general feels proud to have served during the war, and grateful to live in the U.S.

“I’m really honored for this,” said Sar.

Although he operated out of the same area as Sar during the war, Thurston said he did not meet the general until he got involved with veterans organizations in the state.

“We may have crossed paths because we operated out of the same area, but I never knew him at that time. It is my honor to have met [him],” said Thurston.

In an effort to preserve and honor the history of the SGU soldiers, Thurston serves on a committee that is working to bring the SGU National Monument to Bristol. A joint project of the Bristol Veterans Council and SGU Lao Veterans, the monument will be located near the Downs Street cemetery at the eastern end of the Boulevard. The city of Bristol donated a piece of property for the monument, which will depict SGU soldiers coming to the aid of a downed U.S. pilot, and a donated vintage Huey helicopter will hover over the rescue scene. During The Wall’s visit, visitors got a chance to see the Huey helicopter up close on the Boulevard, where Sar and SGU veterans shared their story.

Estimated to cost in excess of $1 million, the monument will be entirely funded by donors.

Thurston said the pieces of the monument are starting to come together. The goal is to have it dedicated in less than two years.

“This is all volunteer fund raising,” said Thurston.

Comments? Email lcapobianco@BristolObserver.com.

PHOTOS by TAMMI NAUDUS

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