KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Military veterans, local leaders and the community gathered Thursday morning for the Knoxville opening ceremony of The Wall That Heals, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The Capt. Bill Robinson Chapter 1078 of the Vietnam Veterans of America and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs hosted the event; distinguished guests included veterans, families and friends. Congressman Tim Burchett, Jacobs, and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon were also in attendance and each shared speeches.
“The names on this wall are those men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion,” Dr. Pat Polis, president of The Capt. Bill Robinson Chapter 1078 Knoxville, said in his opening remarks. “This wall honors them and calls us to remember that they represent the United States and all the best that it stands for. Their sacrifice reminds us that freedom comes with a high cost.”
“To all my fellow Vietnam veterans – I extend to you a welcome home,” Polis said.
During the ceremony shortly after the invocation, the sound of a helicopter approaching grew louder. Attendees looked up to the overcast sky to see a Vietnam-era aircraft, a “Huey” or officially a Bell Huey UH-1 military helicopter conduct a flyover for the ceremony.
The sound of the main rotor blade of the Huey was unmistakable for the veterans. Some 5,000 Hueys transported around 2 million wounded throughout the Vietnam conflict.
Kincannon offered her words to the crowd, saying she was truly moved by hearing the sounds that veterans heard while they were in combat during the Vietnam conflict.
“The wall in Washington, D.C. and the traveling wall are deeply moving and emotional for the millions of people who visit them each year,” Kincannon said. “More than forty-nine thousand Tennesseans served in Vietnam and almost thirteen-hundred of them died. Tennessee is renowned for its volunteerism and service.”
Kincannon went on to say the loss felt back then and the political divides over the conflict were painful for America, “But the hard sacrifices of our men and women should have always been beyond reproach.”
“I know that The Wall That Heals, being here, brings some closure and peace of mind to those who served and those who lost friends or family members,” Kincannon said.
Jacobs shared in his speech that he was proud of his father, George William Jacobs, is a 21-year military veteran – serving in the Korean War and in Vietnam – and his service to the country. He also shared about another Jacobs – George Edgar Jacobs. The mayor told the young man’s story and how the 20-year-old died in Vietnam and how his name can be found on The Wall That Heals.
“When my dad came home from Vietnam, I’m sure he did not get the reception that he deserved,” Jacobs said. “There weren’t people lined up to say ‘thank you for your service,’ I don’t even think he wore his uniform because of the animosity directed toward service members at that time. But he did come home. George E. Jacobs and over fifty-eight thousand of his countrymen did not. Most of them died violently, in a foreign land, during an unpopular war.”
Jacobs then quoted Thomas Paine from his 1776 pamphlet, “The Crisis” about the cost of freedom.
Burchett next spoke to the crowd, as a Congressman and also as a son of a veteran. His father served in WWII and fought in the Pacific.
“The reason we have great veterans and beautiful war memorials is because we’ve had some terrible politicians in this country,” Burchett said. “My family and East Tennessee – we honor our veterans. We love our country and we proudly stand to salute our flag.”
“For our Vietnam veterans and their families, The Wall That Heals provides an important opportunity to reflect on years of service, sacrifice, and in some cases, find a little bit of closure for the loss of a loved one or brothers in arms. It took too long for our country to finally begin showing our Vietnam veterans the respect and honor they deserve, we still have a lot of ground to make up. To our Vietnam veterans, this is one way as a community we can show our appreciation.”
Burchett also thanked all of the organizers of The Wall That Heals as well as local leaders for their part in bringing the wall back to Knoxville.
Capt. Bill Robinson, U.S. Air Force (Ret.) himself was the keynote speaker. Robinson was a POW in Vietnam and was the longest-held enlisted prisoner of war in American history. He spent close to seven-and-a-half years in captivity. After his release and return to the States, he received multiple awards, including the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts – among others.
Robinson declared that “only two defining forces ever offered to die for you: Jesus Christ and the American military. One died for your soul, the other for your freedom.”
Robinson went to share some anecdotes of the names on the wall replica, some whom he knew while serving in Vietnam and while imprisoned.
“With respect and gratitude, we simply say ‘thank you.’ Simple,” Robinson said. “Without veterans, there would be no United States of America.”
Around 152,000 Vietnam-era veterans reside in Tennessee today.
The Wall That Heals is hosted by the Knox County Mayor’s office and presented by Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the Berry Lynnhurst funeral home, the TVA Retirees Association, The Bicentennial Volunteers, and the Capt. Bill Robinson Chapter 1078.
The exhibit will be on display in North Knoxville at the Lynnhurst Cemetery on Adair Drive from Thursday until 2 p.m. on Sunday.