'Every name has a story' as Vietnam wall visits Lehigh Valley (Lehigh Valley Live)

August 14, 2015

By Jim Deegan  

Keith Handwerk took a long, deep breath, his head swimming in the memories of 40 years ago.

“You don’t realize how deep it goes,” Handwerk said of the aftermath of war.

He was among the first visitors Thursday to the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, which is on display at the  Moore Township Recreation Center through 8 a.m. Monday.

Handwerk, 59, served in the U.S. Navy but didn’t fight in Vietnam. He spent several solemn minutes inspecting the wall, stopping here and there along it’s 288-feet length. He left with tears in his eyes.

“I think there should be more of these because we should never forget our veterans,” said Handwerk, of Lehigh Township. “A lot of these guys were drafted. They didn’t have a choice. They went.

“It’s a lot of history. Every name has a story.”

RELATED: Visitors to mobile Vietnam wall to receive pieces of Old Glory

Made of aluminum, the wall is a three-fifths replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and contains the names of the 58,227 servicemen and women killed or missing in action during war.

The Nam Knights motorcycle club and volunteers assembled it in about three hours Thursday morning in the outfield of a baseball diamond at the Moore Township recreation fields.

Folks trickled in and out ahead of a candlelight vigil set for Thursday night in remembrance of the 70 Northampton County servicemen who died in Vietnam and whose names grace the monument.

An opening ceremony is set for 7 p.m. Friday, followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Handwerk reflected on the way servicemen and women are treated now compared to the Vietnam era. Differences over the war and U.S. politics divided family and friends and recollections of that still sting today, he said.

His time at the memorial was emotional.

“Some of these guys that fought alongside the guys that didn’t make it, I don’t know how they do it,” he said. “It’s a scar you never get over.”

Grant and Joanne Wambold, who live in Moore Township, marveled at the scale and spectacle of the wall. It is comprised of 70 panels and owned and maintained by the  Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard in Brevard County, Florida.

“It’s beautiful,” said Grant, an 84-year-old Korean War veteran.

The visit to the Lehigh Valley was made possible by two Scout groups — Cub Scout Pack 50 of Moorestown and Boy Scout Troop 33 of Klecknersville — that raised $10,000 to bring it here.

Lynn Kessler, whose sons are involved with the Scout groups, said the grounds will be open around the clock for the public. Thousands are expected through the weekend.

Clayton and Sandy Miller came Thursday from Schnecksville because they had never been to the memorial in the nation’s capital. Clayton Miller is a 1970 graduate of Liberty High School in Bethlehem whose classmates fought in Vietnam.

The pull and presence of the wall were powerful, the couple said.

“You feel sorry for the people and their families,” Sandy Miller said.

Some visitors spent a long time at the wall, touching the etched names or making rubbings with paper and pencil. Others visited only briefly, finding the name they were seeking before leaving.

Some left flowers or placards at the wall’s base. Staffers have a log book to help find names and visitors can examine a Vietnam era encampment.

Doc Russo, the wall manager with the Florida veterans’ group, said he gets more than 100 requests but only takes the wall on the road 18 times a year.

Folks can visit at any hour until 8 a.m. Monday, when it will be dissembled and on the road again for stops in Florida and Iowa.

It’s not uncommon for Vietnam veterans or a clutch of friends to visit at 3 in the morning, he said.

“They’ll go to the panel, say hello to their buddies and leave,” he said. “Everybody reacts a little bit differently.”

Jim Deegan may be reached at jdeegan@lehighvalleylive.com. Follow him on Twitter @jim_deegan. Find lehighvalleylive on Facebook.