They stare out from the computer screen, the faces of these young men. Some wear football uniforms; others wear suits. There are men smiling on their wedding day, posing at high school graduation, raising cans of Budweiser in celebration.
Mostly, though, the images featured on this digital “Wall of Faces” are traditional military photographs and those that call to mind the long-ago Vietnam War: Men incamouflaged helmets, those in Navy “Dixie Cup” caps, buttoned-up Marines in dress blues.
Nearly 55,000 men — and eight women — are featured there, each frozen in time as part of an effort begun more than a decade ago to bring the stories of the Vietnam War casualties to life by collecting photographs of each of the fallen.
And though the sheer number of photos collected is by any measure a success, there is still more work to do. For the whole war, about 3,500 photographs of Vietnam veterans still are needed.
Anyone is welcome to submit them.
“It started as an idea of trying to bridge the names across the generations,” said Tim Tetz, director of outreach for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, the nonprofit organization that built the Vietnam Wall in D.C.
The foundation is now approaching halfway in its $120 million fundraising campaign to build an underground Vietnam Education Center on the National Mall. “Certainly, the Vietnam generation will remember what their dad or brother looked like. But those who follow will have no idea. We had to tell these stories.”
The foundation started collecting photographs in about 2006. They are displayed digitally on the website and are on a 6-foot-tall screen with The Wall that Heals mobile exhibit. When the education center is finally built, the photos will be on display there, too.
Gathering the collection has really been an on-the-ground effort, Tetz said, with volunteers across the country.
Among them is Janna Hoehn, a 62-year-old florist who lives in Hawaii. She became intrigued after her first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial about eight years ago. Now, she roots out photos, mostly from obituaries, yearbooks and old newspaper clippings and by making connections on classmates.com. She found all the missing photos for Maui, and then for her hometown in California. She moved across the United States in her digital research and is now working on Ohio.
“It’s such an honor,” she said by phone from her home on Maui. “Putting a face with the name means everything. It keeps these fallen heroes alive to us.”
David Hine, a retired Air Force senior master sergeant who served at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, lives in Indiana but also is working on finding the missing Ohio photos.
He said that when he finds potential relatives, it can be difficult to make that first connection, tell them of the project and ask for a photograph.
“Sometimes, even now, they are still dealing with that loss,” Hine said. “But the vast majority of people we reach didn’t know about the Wall of Faces project, and when we tell them, they are just so happy that someone is honoring and remembering their father, their brother, their uncle or whoever.”
Any photo is welcome.
“The military photos are great, but we’d like civilian photos, too, pictures from prom and parties and family reunions and their childhood,” Tetz said. He imagines what it will be like once the education center is built, and the photos are displayed on a two-story screen. “Think of a 10-year-old kid standing there thinking, ‘Mom and Dad, why did you bring me here?’ Then up pops a picture of a veteran fishing as a kid. Golly, suddenly these are real people and the Vietnam Wall has come to life.”
©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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