'The honor they deserve'
Standing near a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Sonny Hancock wore the modern-day regalia common to the soldiers of that war — the ballcap, the black leather vest, each festooned with meaningful patches.
It hadn't always been something he felt comfortable displaying. Leaving the country at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969, enemy mortar rounds arcing as the plane lifted off, Hancock and the others changed clothes at the airport as soon as they landed stateside.
It was a tumultuous time.
"I didn't wear my Vietnam veteran vest until the Gulf War," said Hancock, a 72-year-old Superior Central grad and Duluth resident who as recently as seven years ago was the recipient of the anti-Vietnam slur, "baby killer."
Hancock was among the dozen-plus Vietnam vets on hand Thursday at the local unveiling on Superior's Barker's Island of "The Wall That Heals." The traveling display features the 58,000-plus names of the war's fallen and missing American soldiers, and will be on display 24 hours a day through Sunday.
A ceremony to announce the wall's arrival saw a rifle volley from the color guard of the city's American Legion Post 435 and a stirring rendition of "Taps" conclude the remarks from a roster of speakers.
"These are men and women of honor," said Superior Mayor Jim Paine, "and when they came home they were not treated with the honor they deserved."
Douglas County Board Chair Mark Liebaert recalled the Vietnam War as the first U.S. conflict broadcast nightly on television, a new phenomenon stirred into the cocktail of social change happening in the country. The ensuing debate upended the national opinion of soldiers in the armed forces and left them "melding back into our society quietly," he said.
With its combatants denied a hero's welcome home, Mike Claypool said he believed the touring wall to be a necessary reminder of the importance of the era's veteran.
"I think it's great any time we can bring community awareness to the fact that freedom isn't free," said Claypool, 69, who was stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War, and drove down from Grand Rapids.
Claypool's father, Warren, was a 13-month prisoner of war in World War II. The specter of the Vietnam POW lingered in the American consciousness for decades. As late as 2001, nearly 2,000 soldiers remained unaccounted for and listed by Library of Congress researchers as POWs or missing in action.
"The boys that aren't coming home always hold an interest for me," Claypool said.
Claypool came, in part, because he spent his career as a driver for Halvor Lines, the Superior trucking firm that is sponsoring the wall's stop in Superior.
"Halvor Lines is a company of veterans," said CEO Jon Vinje to the assembled crowd. "Bringing the wall to Superior is important to us."
The wall itself bends across the lawn at Barker's Island. It isn't made of granite and the people who view it won't be able to rub a name onto paper as a keepsake. The best they'll be able to do is photograph it.
But it is evocative of the monument in Washington, D.C. For Hancock, who enlisted into the U.S. Army's 124th Transportation Battalion as a mechanic and ended it in the turret of a tank during the Tet Offensive, it was more than enough.
"The memorial is the best thing to ever happen to Vietnam veterans," Hancock said. "Until then, we didn't get any recognition."