MARCO ISLAND — Many who have seen the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. remember the way the sun shines on the more than 58,000 names inscribed on its black granite surface.
Through Saturday, the Florida sun will reflect on a half-sized replica as Marco Island hosts “The Wall That Heals” in Veteran’s Community Park.
“There’s going to be a lot of raw emotion here,” said City Council Chairman Jerry Gibson, who is an army veteran. “It’s simple, but it’s poignant.”
On Tuesday morning, more than 300 bikers rode in on their motorcycles to escort the wall into Marco city limits. The procession started at Daniels Parkway and Interstate 75 in Lee County and swelled over the Jolley Bridge shortly before noon where dozens waited to greet the riders.
“I come across that bridge every day and it was just a different feeling because there was a purpose,” said Eric Dial, a Naples resident and member of the Paradise HOG Chapter of Naples Harley Davidson.
It was a group of citizens that arranged for the wall’s visit this year, which Gibson said demonstrates to the strength of the community.
“Perhaps it speaks not to the size of Marco Island but to the heart of Marco Island that this memorial is here,” Gibson said. “Vietnam veterans are now part of an aging America and those people live here.”
It took more than $18,000 and three months to arrange for the wall’s arrival. The traveling memorial has a two-year waiting list for cities hoping to host it.
Lee Rubenstein, chair of the committee that brought the wall to the island, said he called Washington D.C. monthly asking to host the wall on Marco. He was surprised when he learned in September that a cancellation had opened up a December date.
On Tuesday, some of the more than 200 volunteers helped assemble the wall and the traveling museum that comes with it. Rubenstein expects between 3,000 and 8,000 visitors this week.
“It’s designed for people who can’t travel to D.C. to see the wall,” he said. “If one person comes here and can let the past go and is relieved, it’s well worth it.”
Visitors with photos of their loved ones who died in Vietnam will be able to scan those pictures into a computer on site for an online database the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is compiling. Of the 1,954 Florida veterans whose names are etched in the memorial, 588 photos have been collected. The names and birthplaces of those 1,954 veterans will be read aloud throughout the week.
The Wall That Heals is one of at least four replica Vietnam memorial walls that travel the country to allow those who can’t travel to Washington D.C. to experience the nation’s most visited war memorial. A different traveling wall was in Bonita Springs last week.
Dave Wisbiski of Marco Island served in the army from 1965 to 1967 and knew several men who served in Vietnam. He ate lunch at the park Tuesday afternoon as volunteers constructed the wall on Marco Island.
“After all these years, we’re being honored,” he said.
The wall will be open to visitors 24 hours a day through Saturday. It opens at 7 a.m. Wednesday with a ceremony at 3 p.m.