BRATTLEBORO—Maya Lin, the architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., once spoke of “the sense of the power of a name.”
That power shaped her design of the V-shaped wall of polished black granite, engraved with the names of nearly 58,000 American service members who were killed in combat during the Vietnam War.
Those names, listed in the chronological order of their deaths, from the first names in 1959 to the final names in 1975, have a profound impact on anyone who sees this representation of the human cost of war.
“It strikes you right in your heart,” said Len Derby, a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 843 in Brattleboro, who led efforts to bring a half-scale replica of the original memorial in Washington to town.
Thousands of people from all over New England came to the grassy field in front of Fulflex on Putney Road to see the Moving Wall, which was on display from Sept. 16 until Sept. 20.
It’s hard now to remember how controversial “The Wall” was when it was dedicated in 1982, but the objections heard then quickly faded. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has since become one of the most visited memorials in Washington and has become a symbol of healing after the bitter war that divided this nation.
“People don’t realize what it takes to keep our nation free,” said Derby. “That’s what I hope people, especially younger people, take away when they come see the wall.”
But there were other reminders of those sacrifices on that grassy field.
Not far away from the wall was a grouping of small U.S. flags, each representing one of the 109 Vermonters who were killed in action during the war.
And not far from the flags was a small table with an empty chair, white tablecloth, and a full place setting — a tradition at veterans’ gatherings to honor prisoners of war and those missing in action.
Beyond those two displays was the mobile Vet Center from the Veterans Affairs hospital in White River Junction, available to offer services to anyone who needed someone to talk to about their wartime experiences.
Volunteers helped people find a particular name on the wall, and staffed a medical tent that Dr. Robert Tortolani said saw very few patients aside from one heat exhaustion case and a couple of bee stings.
“So many people volunteered to help us,” said Tortolani, who served as an Army doctor in Vietnam. “It was wonderful to see.”
Each of the benches near the Wall offered a box of tissues, which volunteers said were often needed.
That is the power of names, and their connections to those who remember the faces and lives behind those names on the wall.
For Derby, that name was on Panel 50E, Line 42. It belonged to Army First Lt. Jan A. Ulmer of Brattleboro, a forward observer with Special Forces who was killed in Tây Ninh Province on April 18, 1968, during the Tet Offensive.
Derby and Ulmer worked together before the war for a local roofing company, and both served in Vietnam that year. Derby learned of his friend’s death when his parents sent him a copy of the Brattleboro Reformer with the story of what happened.
The front page of the newspaper’s April 22 edition reported that Ulmer, the executive officer of a base camp near Katum, “died as a result of wounds received when hit by fragments from friendly mortar rounds directed at hostile forces attacking the camp by rocket.”
He was 24 years old.
On Aug. 20, 1968, the Reformer reported that Ulmer’s widow, Suzanne, received medals awarded to her husband: the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart.
“When an aerial resupply operation drew enemy rocket and mortar fire, Lt. Ulmer manned a camp observation tower to locate the shell impact areas,” the award citation read. “He saw two rockets explode at the end of the runway.”
“Realizing the importance of timely and accurate data for directing counter mortar fire, he moved to the impact area to collect information that could be determined from the shell crater.
“Completely ignoring his safety, he moved with another soldier to examine the craters. He found one of these and determined the direction of fire of enemy weapons.
“As he moved to locate the second one, the Viet Cong delivered a withering mortar barrage on the runway. He was killed instantly by an enemy round as he sought cover from the fusillade.”
Ulmer was the first of 11 Brattleboro-area men who died in Vietnam.
How the Wall moves
A nonprofit group, Vietnam Combat Veterans Ltd., created the Moving Wall in 1984 and has taken it to all 50 states since then.
Paul Chen, a retired ironworker from Chicago who served in the Navy on a destroyer from 1973 to 1977, has been towing the panels around the country with his wife, Kim, for the past 11 years.
“I love coming to the East,” he said. “I think people are more patriotic here. You can definitely feel it.”
Being the transporter of the Moving Wall is “definitely a labor of love,” said Chen, who especially enjoys the people he gets to meet at the various stops.
“We’re not subsidized by anybody,” he said. “It’s all volunteer. The only things I bring are the emotion, and the Wall. The volunteers do the rest.”
He says it takes about two hours to set up the Wall, if everything is right.
“The base needs to be flat and straight, and the people here did a great job,” said Chen. “It looks perfect in that spot.”
Last week, the wall was in Sussex, N.J. It’s an 835-mile trip back to the Chens’ home in New Lenox, Ill., and, after some time off at home, they — and the Wall — will be on the back on the road to North Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 14.
A wait that was worth it
The Moving Wall was to have visited Brattleboro in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic canceled not just the Brattleboro visit but the entire national of schedule of visits.
Undeterred, local volunteers kept up the fundraising and lining up the resources to make sure the 2021 visit would be a success.
“Everything went well,” said Derby. “We had great weather, and there were no big problems.”
With Vietnam veterans in their 70s, Tortolani said, the wall’s visit to Brattleboro represented one of the last chances for them to experience the kind of closure that this memorial brings.
“We’re not getting any younger, and the Wall doesn’t come through here very often,” he said.