DACULA - Every year, millions of people visit "The Wall" in Washington, D.C., the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial that displays the names of the 58,249 American casualties of the war. Etched in granite, they serve as a stark reminder of the sacrifices of troops abroad.
But not all Georgians who had friends or family killed in Vietnam are able to make the trip to our nation's capital. That's why organizers decided to bring a replica of The Wall to Gwinnett County.
On Thursday morning, the Moving Wall was erected on the lawn of Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula. Already hundreds of veterans, students and residents of all ages have come to pay their respects to the soldiers whose names are etched in white on its aluminum surface. People will be allowed to visit 24 hours a day until it is taken down on Monday afternoon.
"I'm hoping that people will be able to understand veterans of the Vietnam war, understand more about what the war was, at least for the time that they're there ... because I know it won't last forever and our lives are too busy," said Marvin Atherton, who coordinated the memorial.
The Moving Wall is about half the size of the granite wall in Washington, D.C. It has been touring the country since 1984, two years after its founders were moved by the national monument. It last came to Gwinnett in 1999, when it was also in Dacula. The Moving Wall also came to Snellville in 1990.
On Thursday, 80 eighth-graders from Dacula Middle School visited the Moving Wall with their teachers to pay their respects. Each of them had to research the biographies of five of the soldiers whose names were on the wall. Many of them left envelopes under the panels containing letters about their thoughts on war.
The students paraded along the large wall at the beginning and end of their visit. Sam Cantrell, 14, said it had been a good experience for him.
"It's kind of sad. There's so many names, I can't even read them all," Sam said.
An opening ceremony will be held today at 6:30 p.m. The featured speaker will be Col. Nimrod McNair, a decorated veteran command pilot who flew on 110 missions in World War II and the Vietnam War. There will also be an honor guard there to display the colors and lay a wreath at the memorial site.
Many different veterans' groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Lawrenceville and the American Legion, helped coordinate the effort. Atherton said he had many different volunteers helping to erect it, keep watch and make it a success.
Robbie Chavis, who is in the Georgia Guard, volunteered to help with the Wall on Thursday. His father had fought in the war, and when he was a child, he remembered being in Vietnam. He said he hoped students too young to remember the war, including his own daughter, would appreciate veterans' sacrifices.
"I've had the firsthand experience, They only get to hear about it," Chavis said. "I want them to know that someone died for the freedoms they have in this country, that someone fought for them even if they don't know who that person is."
Bethlehem resident Tim Frost brought his 6-year-old son, Joshua, out to see the wall. Though his son was too young to know much about Vietnam, he wanted him to appreciate its significance.
"I just wanted to give him a sense of the history that we've been through," Frost said. "There was a person behind every single name on there."
Veteran John Burbulis, who served in Vietnam, had visited the Wall both times it was in Dacula, and twice in Washington, D.C. Every time, he said it was difficult reading the names of his friends who were casualties of the war.
"I came just to pay tribute to the veterans, to the lost soldiers. I have a lot of friends, a lot of friends on this wall," Burbulis said. "I want people to know what it means to defend their freedom, what it takes to defend it."
For more information, visit The Moving Wall's local Web site at www.daculamemorialday.com/themovingwall.htm