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Montanans pay their respects at The Wall That Heals

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | June 25, 2023 12:00 AM

John Vollertsen came to Kalispell with two names in mind.

A Vietnam War veteran living in Helena, Vollertsen traveled to the Flathead Valley upon hearing of the arrival of The Wall That Heals, a three-quarter scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A staff sergeant in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Vollertsen visited the wall June 22 to pay respect to two friends who died in Vietnam. Their names are two of more than 58,000 engraved into the synthetic granite panels.

“War affects the individuals in the war, the families at home, communities and the nation as a whole,” Vollertsen said. “We need to learn from the experiences of those who served our country and hopefully not make the same mistakes.”

He found their names on the traveling memorial: Specialist Fourth Class Arnold Sarna and Sgt. Steven Perry. For the first time in decades, the three were reunited in a way that meant a lot to the surviving veteran.

“It’s pretty important,” Vollertsen said.

A long and divisive conflict, the war pitted North Vietnam against South Vietnam and the United States. President John F. Kennedy authorized the sending of military advisors to the nation in 1961 building on aid efforts undertaken by the Eisenhower administration. By the end of 1963, there were around 16,000 advisors in Vietnam, according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

The U.S.’s direct eight-year intervention in the country ended in 1973.

“It was a conflict that would drag on for a decade, take thousands of lives, and change forever America’s mentality about the war,” Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, a Vietnam veteran, said at a ceremony honoring the memorial Thursday morning.

Vallely said that he, just like thousands of other veterans, struggles to shake the horrific images of war from his mind. The original memorial, finished in 1982 in Washington, was intended to give veterans the opportunity to heal while recognizing those who lost their lives.

“Those kinds of memories never go away. Yes, we can heal, and we should be healing and that’s what the wall is about,” Vallely said, “... But you continue to remember all of your experiences in combat.”

Glacier Park Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2522 hosted the exhibit, which consists of the synthetic granite wall and a 53-foot-trailer that transforms into a mobile education center.

“When you talk about the importance of this wall, all you have to do is look around. There is not one dry eye here,” said Les Kodlick, a member of the VFW post’s committee that oversaw the memorial’s arrival in Kalispell.

No other military conflict in world history saw veterans treated so poorly upon their return home, said Bill Miles, Junior Vice Commander of Post 2522. Miles, who served as a staff sergeant in the Air Force during the Gulf War, highlighted the significance of the wall, saying that it's important for those who lost family members or friends or for anyone wanting to pay their respects.

“It allows us to remember the sacrifices of not just those who were killed in action but those who came home as well,” Miles said.

Miles pointed to Dennis Gates, a man Miles knows as Uncle Denny, as an example of bringing people together and the importance of community helping veterans heal. The pair walked the length of the wall together on Thursday. Miles said the tour was more meaningful than he could express.

Gates was a sergeant and squad leader in the Army during Vietnam. He was in charge of 14 men, he said. Of those, seven are on the wall.

“I’d like to see more people realize what these guys had to do and go through,” he said. “... What the American soldier gave to give them their freedom.”

Flathead resident Lyle Luckey also spent time at the wall, looking for names he might recognize. Luckey was drafted right out of high school and was sent to Vietnam with the Army. His wife, Nola, accompanied him.

“It’s overwhelming is what it is,” Luckey said. “There’s a lot of names.”

“I’m glad yours isn’t one of them,” Nola Luckey said.

The Wall That Heals came to the valley on behalf of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Fund, the nonprofit organization authorized by Congress in 1980 to build the national memorial in Washington. Kalispell is one of 32 cities to host the wall this year.

Multiple volunteers assisted with set up, security, lighting and ultimately the tear down. Mark Coppock was one of them. Coppock, who lives in the valley, was the son of a World War II veteran who never spoke about this time in the war.

There are two extremes in veterans, Coppock said. Some talk about their time serving, others do not. But hearing stories and seeing veterans react to the wall has made clear to Coppock the importance of showing up.

“It’ll grab you,” Coppock said, regarding the emotionality of the event.

After Thursday’s ceremony, people began walking along the panels, looking for specific names or simply taking in the massive amount of names the wall honors. A few minutes later, a bald eagle began circling the Glacier High School soccer field, where the wall is set up.

“There’s your flyover,” said Miles, smiling.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.

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A volunteer helps a visitor with a name rubbing of a service member on The Wall That Heals on Thursday, June 22. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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John Vollertsen, a Vietnam veteran from Helena, points to the name of one of his two friends who were killed in action while serving together in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army on The Wall That Heals on Thursday, June 22.. They are Sgt. E5 Steven Perry and Spc. E4 Arnold Sarna. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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American flags along The Wall That Heals at the Glacier High School soccer fields on Thursday, June 22. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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A Marine bugler plays Taps at dusk at The Wall That Heals at the Glacier High School soccer fields on Thursday, June 22. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Visitors pay their respects at The Wall That Heals at the Glacier High School soccer fields on Thursday, June 22. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)