On the front page of the Nov. 1, 2007, edition of The Cheshire Herald, a photo stretching across three columns and taking up the whole top right section of the paper showed the powerful scene.
A trailer truck is shown turning into the entranceway to Bartlem Park, with hundreds of onlookers lining the street all around, some waving American flags. Behind the truck, one can see motorcyclists following in procession, about to make the same turn as the trailer.
The headline reads, “The Memorial Wall Comes To Cheshire.”
It was approximately 15 years ago that “The Wall that Heals,” a traveling, smaller replica of the Vietnam War Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., arrived in town. The moment had been anticipated for months, as then-Cheshire High School history teacher Ralph Zingarella organized a grassroots effort, composed of veterans and local students, to help bring the mobile monument to the community. And the first sign of that trailer truck, escorted by motorcyclists, as well as fire and police personnel, did not disappoint.
Bartlem Park is once again playing host to such a wall.
From now through Monday, the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall will stand at attention for visitors. A 3/5ths-scale version of the original in D.C., it is 6 feet high at the center and covers almost 300 feet from end to end. More than 58,000 names are listed on it.
Bringing the wall back to Cheshire was the idea of teenager Hayley Falk, a Cheshire High School student who comes from a family of veterans. Her father, Jeff Falk, a sergeant in the Cheshire Police Department, is a Navy veteran who served aboard submarines. Her grandfather, Don Falk, served in Vietnam and has been an inspiration for Hayley, who founded the group, Because of the Brave, specifically to honor veterans from all branches of the Armed Forces.
For five days, members of the community will be able to visit a version of the memorial that has become one of the most-visited sites in Washington, D.C. Each year, millions make the journey to the long, black marble wall etched with names and dates of those who went to Vietnam never to return.
The stories of the men and women who died in that country continue to be told, as do the stories of those fortunate enough to have made it home alive — the heroes who carry the scars of that conflict with them to this day, some of which are visible, many of which are not. It will be a week of honoring, remembering, and learning, especially for a younger generation for whom the Vietnam War is now some distant conflict to learn about in history books.
Back in 2007, the sentiment was much the same. Zingarella and those who volunteered their time to help, all had one goal in mind: pay tribute to those who never returned from a controversial war and finally pay those who did return the homage they deserved.
“The Wall that Heals is now here,” reads a statement printed on the front page of the Nov. 1 Around Town section. “It has been a long journey since the project was undertaken in June of 2006, but it has been a rewarding one.”
The piece goes on to quote Zingarella, who thanked all who had made his idea a reality, and he encouraged members of the community to attend opening ceremonies as well as visit the wall while it remained on display.
“The veterans of the Vietnam War have been the focus of our town, and rightfully so,” Zingarella stated. “They have done their part in our nation’s history and the time is long overdue for them to be granted the same place in history as all of our veterans. They were simply doing their job.”
In the following week’s edition, The Herald related what opening ceremonies had been like. In a Nov. 8, 2007, edition of the paper, the lead feature proclaimed that the “Memorial Wall Leaves Its Mark On Cheshire.” Once again, Zingarella offered his thoughts, this time in the midst of watching the wall he helped attract finally be erected.
“Next to my kids being born and the day I got married, this was the greatest thing I have ever experienced,” Zingarella told The Herald at the time.
The event attracted numerous dignitaries, including then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, prior to his election to the U.S. Senate. Another attendee was Cheshire resident, former Marine, and Vietnam Veteran Dennis Mannion, who was recently featured in The Herald. Mannion provided what The Herald described at the time as “one of the more poignant speeches” to be delivered throughout the ceremony, where he related the story of how, on a flight home from Vietnam, he was seated next to a man who, upon learning Mannion’s status as a combat soldier, asked to change his seat once the flight was underway.
But Mannion, as one would expect, spent much of his time paying tribute to his fallen comrades.
“(The Wall) has made these men come alive, even if it is only for a brief moment,” he said in his speech. “The classic beauty of the structure behind me exists in its simplicity of purpose. It mirrors the battlefield. It is always a final world of simplicity.”
Another speaker was then-Deputy Secretary of the Navy, Harvey “Barney” Barnum, Cheshire native, recipient of the Medal of Honor, and a man known to hold nothing back. Barnum delivered what was described as a “fiery” speech that offered a push-back against how the Vietnam War and the men who fought in it have been portrayed over the years.
“I see little of what I experienced (in Vietnam) in any Oliver Stone movie,” said Barnum. “It has taken many of us a long time to speak about the war, but we must speak. We must dispel the myths that have grown up around this war.”
“The names of those who gave their lives are inscribed in the order in which they were taken from us,” he said. “In its mirror-like image, it reflects all that come to see it, and we are joined together with the names … I hope this wall serves to soothe those of us who served, and perhaps those who feel guilt for having not served.”
The speeches may have been memorable, but what likely left the biggest impression on those who attended the opening ceremony occurred just after the speakers concluded. Lining up near the podium was a group of students, each of them holding flowers. Zingarella then invited those in attendance who had a family member or friend listed on the wall to come up, receive a flower, and lay it where that name was located on the wall.
The image evoked tears from those gathered, as music played lightly in the background.
Though the event was specifically designed to honor those who served in Vietnam, many in attendance couldn’t help but think about another conflict. It had been six years since the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which sparked conflicts in both Afghanistan and, eventually, Iraq.
For Sarah Barzec, a resident of Middletown, attending “The Wall that Heals” ceremony felt like a necessity for her, not just as a way to show respect to those who died in Vietnam, but also to honor her brother’s service. He was scheduled to “ship out” to Iraq a few weeks later.
“With my brother going to Iraq, it was really overwhelming to be here,” she said. “I just felt like it was the right thing to do, to come out and show my support.”
How will the wall be received this time around? Will it, 15 years later, evoke the same emotions?
The answer to that is most likely yes.