ASHLAND • If you have ever wanted to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. but haven’t had a chance to travel to our nation’s capitol, a 375-foot-long traveling version will be in Ashland next week.
The Wall That Heals will be set up at the Benton County Fairgrounds and will be open from 12:01 a.m. Thursday, March 12 through 2 p.m. Sunday, March 15. This replica, sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, allows local residents to honor those who served in the U.S. Armed Services and the more than 58,000 who died during the Vietnam War.
“This is going to be one of the best things that has ever happened in Benton County, Mississippi,” said Ashland Mayor Mitch Carroll. “I think veterans are going to be thrilled. I know they will be thrilled, the veterans and their parents too.”
Carroll who served in Vietnam from 1968-1969 said it means a lot to have this experience locally and that there is no way to express how much it means.
“I have had friends from Benton County who were killed over there and all of us veterans had friends from other places that were killed over there. It is kind of hard to describe how it does people.”
Ashland is one of 35 communities from 116 applicants chosen to host The Wall in 2020. It is the fourth stop on this year's tour.
The exhibit includes a three-quarter scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial along with a mobile education center. The traveling exhibit stands 7.5 feet high at its tallest point and honors the more than three million Americans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces in the Vietnam War. The Wall consists of 58,276 names of servicemen and women who died in Vietnam.
“I have seen The Wall in Washington D.C. a couple of times and know what a special, quiet place of reverence it is,” said Meg Thomas who is organizing the event. “I thought what a great thing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is doing by bringing this into local communities. I grew up in that era and remember what a scary time and sad time it was.”
Thomas submitted an application to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund last year for Ashland to be a stop on the 2020 Tour, but she said she never expected the small town to be picked.
“When I submitted that application, I really did not think we had a chance,” continued Thomas. “Based on the 2019 Tour, it seemed that the event went to much larger towns and cities than Ashland … When I got the call that Ashland had been selected, I brought to their attention that our little town is small with limited places for people to eat and stay. That was not a concern for them.”
Thomas said she does feel the location was a major factor in choosing Ashland with its vicinity to Tupelo, Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee, as well as the smaller communities in between.
“At first, I was not sure how all this was even going to go over. I grew up here but moved away for a few years and then moved back. I had lost some connections so I was not sure how everyone would feel. I wasn't even sure anyone would want this. It has been great.“
Thomas said she has had the full support of the Benton County Board of Supervisors, who are sponsoring the event. Once they gave her to OK to proceed, she began calling around and asking people to join the planning committee for The Wall. She has even enlisted the help of veterans in surrounding counties.
“I have been amazed at the passion that all the veterans involved in this have shown. These folks served in a war that did not appreciate the sacrifice they made and it has been wonderful to see how hard they are working and the people around here are working to make this event happen.”
Thomas said the people from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in Washington have done a great job of guiding the committee on what will be needed once The Wall arrives.
“We added folks to help based on different job responsibilities and needs. It has to be very organized and everyone has taken this very seriously and worked so hard. I'm really going to miss the camaraderie when this is over.”
Thomas expects the mobile education center included with The Wall exhibit will be a main attraction. The Wall That Heals is transported from community to community in a 53-foot trailer. When parked, the trailer opens with exhibits built into its sides, allowing it to serve as a mobile education center telling the story of the Vietnam War, The Wall and the divisive era in American history.
The mobile education center exhibit includes: a digital photo displays of “Hometown Heroes” – service members whose names are on The Wall that list their home of record within the area of a visit; a digital photo displays of Vietnam veterans from the local area honored through VVMF’s In Memory program which honors veterans who returned home from Vietnam and later died as a result of their service; video displays that teach about the history and impact of The Wall; educational exhibits told through items representative of those left at The Wall in D.C.; a replica of the In Memory plaque; a map of Vietnam and a chronological overview of the Vietnam War. The exhibits tell the story of the Vietnam War, The Wall and the era surrounding the conflict, and are designed to put American experiences in Vietnam in a historical and cultural context.
Another attraction in the mobile education center is a Gold Star Bike donated in 2012 by the American Gold Star Mothers. The bike is a Softail Custom Harley Davidson that pays tribute to mothers who lost sons in the war.
Thomas said the Benton County Historical Society is complementing The Wall exhibit by adding a Vietnam exhibit to the Historic Courthouse Museum. The museum will have a designated area in the building honoring Vietnam veterans with items donated by veterans and their families. The museum will also be open extended hours March 12-14 and welcome anyone to come by before or after visiting The Wall. Museum hours for the week of the wall will be 9 a.m. - noon on Wednesday, March 11; noon – 3 p.m. on Thursday, March 12 and Friday, March 13; and noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 14.
The Wall is expected to arrive in Ashland by motorcycle escort around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 10. There will be a brief welcome ceremony that day.
On Saturday, March 14, a memorial ceremony honoring veterans on The Wall and those still living will take place at 10 a.m. at the fairgrounds. The Mississippi National Guard will be posting the flags and local veterans will do a presentation of the wreaths. Retired General Al Hopkins and U.S. Congressman General Trent Kelly will be guest speakers. Local veterans and their families will be acknowledged and Columbus Air Force Base is scheduled to fly over.
Everyone is encouraged to attend this event especially surviving Vietnam veterans. There will be bleacher seating in place for the ceremony but anyone is welcome to bring their own lawn chair. There will be no food or drinks available for purchase but outside snacks are allowed. Thomas expects the ceremony to be approximately two hours long.
The Wall is free to attend but the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund will have a donation box in place if anyone wants to donate. All donations go directly to the VVMF.
Thomas said everything is going smoothly so far but her main concern is out of anyone’s control.
“We are just praying for good weather. That is something none of us can do anything about.”
The arrival of The Wall
When The Wall That Heals arrives in Ashland on Tuesday, March 10, it will be escorted by motorcycle clubs and independent riders from all over Mississippi.
Over 100 motorcycles, trucks and veterans are expected to lead the way. Some of the clubs in the procession will be the Legion Riders, Patriot Guard Riders, Mechanized Cavalry Riders, Vietnam Riders, VFW Riders and White Knuckles. The American Patriot of Mississippi will be bringing their truck to be part of the escort and it will be displayed at The Wall throughout the event.
Ripley American Legion Commander Mike Felton, who served in Vietnam from 1969-1970, said the escort will begin about 50 miles away from Ashland in Pontotoc and will travel up MS 15 through Ecru, New Albany, Blue Mountain, Ripley and Falkner before arriving in Ashland.
"Anyone who would like to be involved with the escort is welcome to come down to Pontotoc and be part of it," said Felton.
Riders will meet at the Pontotoc Agri-Center between 2 - 2:30 p.m. Felton said the procession will travel five miles below the speed limit. The Wall will depart Pontotoc at 3 p.m. and is expected to be in New Albany at 3:25 p.m., Blue Mountain at 3:45 p.m., Ripley at 3:55 p.m., Falkner at 4:10 p.m. and Ashland at 4:35 p.m. All times are tentative. Those wanting to view The Wall as it travels through their town are encouraged to arrive 30 minutes early.
Upon arrival in Ashland, there will be a brief welcome ceremony to thank the escorts. The trailer carrying The Wall will be opened up to allow the escorts and visitors a sneak peek of the exhibit.
The Names on the Wall
Like the original Memorial, The Wall That Heals is erected in a chevron-shape and visitors are able to do name rubbings of individual service member’s names on The Wall. The names are listed in order of date of casualty and alphabetically on each day. Beginning at the center/apex, the names start on the East Wall (right-hand side) working their way out to the end of that wing, picking up again at the far end of the West Wall (left-hand side) and working their way back to the center/apex. The first and last casualties are side by side at the apex of the Memorial.
Local casualties listed on The Wall are as follows:
From Benton County, William Thomas Gresham Jr., Henry Clyde Sanders, Walter James Hampton, and Lynn Bailey Coleman.
From Tippah County, Raymond A. Bizzell, Terry Lee Blythe, David T. Chapman, Louis C. Hines, Richard Alan Menees, Lee Roy Rutherford, Gerald Mauney, Gerald Bizzell and Herman Simmons.
These local casualties will be featured in the mobile education center as well, except for Henry Clyde Sanders and Walter James Hampton who are listed with out-of-state addresses with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The Benton County Historical Society will have special displays at The Wall for Sanders and Hampton.
For a list of other area casualties and their positions on The Wall, see attached PDF.
Volunteering and Scheduling a Tour
There are still several slots available for people to help with The Wall. Volunteers are needed to help with parking, the mobile education center, the welcome tent and The Wall. Most shifts last four hours each but volunteers can sign up for as many shifts as they wish. Since The Wall is open 24 hours, people are needed both day and night.
To sign up to be a volunteer, go to signupgenuis.com. For a link to the Signup Genuis page, visit The Wall That Heals - Ashland, MS on Facebook. If you do not have access to a computer, call Jeanie Burton at the Benton County Library at 662-224-6400 or at 662-224-4205.
T-shirts will be available for volunteers and will be passed out on Wednesday, March 11 during a training session at 6 p.m. The committee is asking for a $15 donation to The Wall That Heals Fund but it is not mandatory.
Large groups, as well as individuals, are encouraged to visit the memorial. School groups, civic groups and church groups are all invited to experience this important part of history.
If you have a group that would like to visit The Wall, contact Debbie Childers at 662-224-4881 to schedule a tour. Scheduling is not necessary but it gives The Wall committee an idea of how many people to expect so they can have enough volunteers on hand at the scheduled time.
For more information on The Wall That Heals, contact Meg Thomas at 901-359-4360.
"I think people will learn from this. There will be lots of information about the war, a map of Vietnam and hopefully it will help to bring some closure to the families that have loved ones on The Wall, as the name says 'The Wall That Heals,'" concluded Thomas.