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Tuesday, Sep. 2, 2014

Moving Wall brought many together

Monday, September 17, 2001

SIKESTON - Ten years ago a wall was raised in Sikeston that, instead of dividing people, brought them together.

Consisting of 70 panes made of black anodized aluminum with white letters silk-screened on its surface, "The Moving Wall" Vietnam Veteran Memorial was placed on exhibit at Rotary Park from Sept. 18-23, 1991.

The timing was perfect, according to Gary "Bo" Ozment, providing a chance for those in the area to come to terms with the Vietnam War even as the nation celebrated our recent victory in the Persian Gulf.

"It was at a time when this country felt real good about itself and was united in its belief," said Ozment. "And I think we're going to see that again now. We're going to see this country come together like it never has before."

"This was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever been involved with," recalled Tom Austin, who was instrumental in bringing the wall here. "I had seen the moving wall at other locations and I just had this vision of how it would look in Sikeston."

Austin said there are a number of people from Sikeston and Scott County listed among the names on the wall. "I think Sikeston needed it," he said. "For some families it would mean closure."

In October 1990, Austin called the wall's curator, John Devitt, to see if it could be brought to Sikeston. At the time, however, the wall was typically booked for two to three years in advance.

Fortunately, there happened to be a window of opportunity in September between scheduled stays in two other cities. "We were right on the way," said Austin.

The cost for Vietnam Combat Veterans Ltd. to bring the memorial's truck to town and supervise its setup was $2,500. "That did not even get it off the truck," said Austin.

Austin immediately turned to the Sikeston Jaycees "to see if they could help out financially," he said. "The Jaycees didn't bat an eye. They jumped on the wagon and said, 'We want to be a part of this.'"

Plans were confirmed with the curator for the September dates, and in April 1991 a committee was formed to prepare for and publicize the Wall's exhibit - Firebase Sikeston. "They were the ones that spearheaded the effort from that point on," said Austin.

Eleven people showed up to Firebase Sikeston's first meeting. "Our group grew and as it drew closer to the time, we probably had 250 people involved in it," said Austin.

In addition to Firebase Sikeston and the Sikeston Jaycees, other organizations such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Eagles, Elks and their respective auxiliaries all pitched in as well. "The entire community got behind it," said Austin.

With the cost of an asphalt walk in Rotary Park to place the display at and publicity costs including a closing night concert, over $13,000 was spent to host the exhibit, not including donated resources and time from "a multitude of people," according to Austin.

The response from the community was "tremendous, outstanding - nothing but praise," according to Austin. "We had thousands of students come by on tours from all over Southeast Missouri."

Austin said people were impressed on several levels by the memorial. "They didn't realize the enormity of it," said Austin - or how emotionally moving it could be.

"Certain memories came back very strong," said Ozment, who like many who served in Vietnam, "came home and went on, and it was like it didn't exist."

For Ozment and others, their visit to the wall is remembered as "a very peaceful time, a real welcome home that a lot of the people coming back from Vietnam didn't get."