Sunday, January 21, 2018
Politics

Honoring Vietnam's fallen, picture by picture

They met on Christmas Day all those many years ago. Robert Szponder, 17, was the handsome guy with the denim blue eyes. He rode a black motorcycle and was just a few years away from the Army and war and death. Darlene Bernard was turning 15, just one semester into her freshman year of high school.

They sat across from each other in her living room, staring and flirting until the distance of strangers had melted. The holiday visitor became her boyfriend for almost three years, endless afternoons on the beach holding hands, and talks about a future until he was gone in the summer of 1968, some 10,000 miles away, a soldier drafted into the Vietnam War. That chapter would end two years later with Szponder's body returned to South Florida as a war casualty, shot in the heart by a sniper in the Binh Dinh province in 1970. Robert Allan Szponder was 21.

Four decades later, with a new Vietnam War education center planned, the urgent call came for photos of the more than 58,000 Americans who died or remain missing — service men and women who never had the chance to become veterans — and Bernard went to her stash of memories, submitting photos and writing about the man she loved, her small contribution to a national campaign to humanize the wreckage of the war.

The names of the lost have already been etched in the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, known simply as the Wall. But now with photos, stories from the trenches and the tiniest details, dead and missing members of the armed forces who served can be fully remembered.

"Bobby was the love of my life," said Bernard, 62, now living in Pompano Beach. "I want people to know that Bobby was a good person. He had a great personality and sense of humor. He wanted to do the right thing and was serious about serving the country."

With 26,551 names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall still without faces or back stories to honor them — 1,138 from Florida alone — memorial leaders are renewing an effort to collect more photos and remembrances. The call for contributions encourages friends and families to send their photos to personalize the names on the memorial wall on the National Mall. What is collected is added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's virtual Wall of Faces ( vvmf.org), a website honoring the war dead and missing, and will become part an interactive feature in the new Education Center at the Wall, due to open in 2014.

"The pictures are integral to the center and the visitor experience. They bring the person to life by putting a face to a name," said Jan C. Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. "The names alone are powerful, but when you look at a picture, it does something different to you emotionally. It's also chilling to see a name and the place where a photo should be is empty.''

The Wall, dedicated in 1982, was built as a symbol of healing, a way of distinguishing the people who served in the military from the unpopular U.S. policy carried out in Vietnam. It attracts about 4.5 million visitors annually to see familiar names and also to appreciate the magnitude of the loss.

The memorial stretches across two walls, each composed of 72 separate inscribed panels. Szponder's name is inscribed on panel 8W, row 67.

Much of the tribute remains faceless. More than half of the 58,282 names on the wall also have a photo or biography on the virtual site. The hope is that every member of the U.S. forces that served is eventually remembered, that no story is left behind.

But the war ended more than 38 years ago and memories are slipping away.

"This is urgent in that we want to get the photos before it's too late, before they are lost to history," said Scruggs, the wounded and decorated Vietnam veteran who led the effort to build the memorial. "Just about every day we get a photograph. . . . Now a lot are coming from siblings as their parents are in their 80s and 90s. Sometimes we get good candid photos from Vietnam where buddies took the photos and brought them back when they returned.''

In 2003, President George W. Bush signed legislation authorizing the VVMF to build an underground educational facility near the Wall as a way of helping future generations understand and appreciate the legacy of those who served. The center, expected to cost about $95 million, will feature pictures and stories of those who were lost as well as some of the more than 150,000 items left at the memorial.

The material posted online comes mostly from family, friends, classmates and surviving members of military units. Beyond the photos, the remembrances offer the most vivid, personal details that put the names on the wall into context.

Among the 1,138 fallen from Florida who remain faceless in the archive, there are 35 from St. Petersburg, 84 from Tampa and 13 from Clearwater, who served in every branch of the military.

Others are remembered in photos and recollections, frozen in time.

For St. Petersburg's Herbert William "Bill" Scott III, 21, killed in a U.S. Army helicopter explosion on June 12, 1968, his sisters Susan and Sheila posted remembrances. Sheila Scott Gordon wrote: "My son, and your nephew was visiting you at the Wall today. He is now a Naval Officer and reminds me so much of you. His brother and sister always visit you at the Wall when they are in D.C. and your memory is being passed on through them. You are so missed."

Scott is buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in St. Petersburg.

"What do we have left to remember Bill by?" Susan Scott McDonald wrote. "In my closet rests a cherished box of tapes he sent to us and a now-antiquated tape recorder. He sounds as clear to me as if he were sitting next to me, enthusiastically recounting his arrival in Vietnam and his respectful wonder at the countryside and the people. I wince as I hear his cold getting worse as the tapes progress."

Susan named her son after her brother.

But for other names, there are no photos, no personal remembrances and the barest of details, such as Bobby Elmer Gray, a 20-year-old Marine listed as being from Tampa who died on July 7, 1970. Or Howard W. Snitchler, 21, an Army private first class from Largo who died on April 28, 1968, and is buried at Riverhurst Cemetery in Endicott, N.Y.

Among those still considered missing in action is Army Capt. Thomas I. Ledbetter, 28, of Tampa.

Ledbetter went missing during a two-day search and destroy mission on June 17, 1964. He is among the first casualties of the war from the Tampa Bay area.

"As an American, I would like to thank you for your service and for your sacrifice made on behalf of our wonderful country. The youth of today could gain much by learning of heroes such as yourself, men and women whose courage and heart can never be questioned," Curt Carter posted in a remembrance in June. "May God allow you to read this, and may he allow me to someday shake your hand when I get to Heaven to personally thank you."

Times staff writer Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report.

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