Building a wall: Volunteers working to honor Vietnam veterans

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

One idea during a casual conversation could mean radical changes for Veterans Park in Tupelo.
The conversation took place in January between Janie Alexander-Macasco and Barbara Rushing.
They were discussing the Moving Wall, a half-sized replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. Some 35,000 people saw the Moving Wall when it visited Itawamba Community College in Fulton in 2001.
“The people who brought the wall to ICC gave us a panel from it,” Alexander-Macasco said.
“It had my brother’s name on it,” said Rushing, referring to her older brother, Dan Boozer, who was killed in Vietnam.
“We were talking about putting it somewhere. It was just made out of thin metal. How was it going to hold up outside?” Alexander-Macasco said. “I thought, Why don’t we build a wall?”
The metal panel is on display at the Tupelo Veterans Museum at Ballard Park.
A permanent memorial exists only as an idea, but it’s gaining traction in the real world.
“We gave it our blessing,” said Bob Verell, with the Tupelo City Veterans Committee.
The city of Tupelo and the Department of Parks and Recreation set aside space at Veterans Park for a 60 percent replica of the wall in Washington, D.C.
Volunteers pressed the campaign forward. They studied the original wall, and talked with people responsible for building other replicas across the country.
“It was only after hundreds of hours of research that we decided that it could be done,” Alexander-Macasco said.
JESCO did a survey and estimated the total cost at about $768,000. That includes 267 feet of reflective black granite over concrete, as well as a parking area, lighting and surrounding walkways.
JESCO also created a site plan to help push the initial idea closer toward reality.
“We wanted to be able to show what we’re trying to do,” said Jerry Stubblefield, president of JESCO. “If you’re expecting me to give you a couple thousand dollars, what are you going to do with it? Well, this shows you what we’re going to do.”
Gaining support
The Vietnam Replica Wall Committee is accepting donations of money, materials and manpower. Day-Brite provided a lighting plan for the proposed site, and organizers have applied for numerous grants.
The timeline is pragmatic: “As soon as we get the money,” Alexander-Macasco said.
American Legion Post 72 in New Albany recently pulled $3,000 from its general fund for the effort.
The post will sponsor a panel that lists the names of 14 men who were killed on Oct. 23, 1967. They were members of Mike Bennett’s unit. He now serves as adjutant for Post 72.
James Byers, post commander, said the decision to support the project was an easy one to make.
A daughter’s story
The original memorial and the proposed replica are personal for Kim Sistrunk. Her father, Leslie Douglas, was killed near the end of the Vietnam War when he volunteered for a helicopter mission because another man was at the dentist.
Several years ago, survivors of her father’s helicopter crew contacted Sistrunk and her mother, and paid their way to Washington, D.C.
“It was very profound. Very emotional,” said Sistrunk, who was a baby when her father was killed. “I’d never thought my mother would get to go. To see my mother when she put her hand on the wall … You can’t know until you experience it. It’s overwhelming.”
She’s reaching out to family and friends, as well as to her father’s comrades, to raise money for the Tupelo wall.
“There are still so many people who don’t know what we’re trying to do,” Sistrunk said.
Belated thank you
Walkways at the memorial will include pavers engraved with information about the war, so the wall will serve an education function.
In addition, the wall is expected to draw Vietnam veterans and their families from the southeastern U.S.
“The idea of having one here in Mississippi is because so many of our veterans don’t have the money to travel to get to the actual wall,” said Randy Sutton, a Vietnam veteran. “It will be a big regional draw for them over the next 15 or 20 years.”
Judy Clemons is sewing table runners, tote bags and purses, and selling them to raise money for the project. She remembers how hard it was on veterans returning home from the war. There were no parades and few claps on the back.
“When they said they were building a wall, I said, ‘Let’s go. I’m for it,’” she said. “They had such a horrible time adjusting after the war. Part of it was how they were greeted when they got back here.”
To Clemons and others, the replica wall will serve as a belated thank you.
Sutton, a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said his fellow members are paying close attention to developments at Veterans Park.
“The only issue our chapter had when it came up was not to get our hopes up,” he said. “We know how hard it is to get money.”
If you ever visit a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall replica at Veterans Park, it will be because two women came up with an idea and refused to keep it to themselves.
That idea keeps picking up new supporters, and you’re more than welcome to join the crowd.
“It is about people like Kim Sistrunk, who lost a father she never knew, Barbara Rushing, who lost a brother, and Mike Bennett, who lost 14 comrades in one day,” Alexander-Macasco said, “and all those who served and came home to mistreatment and mocking.”

Click video to hear audio