MARCO ISLAND — Just after 3:30 p.m., the 1,000th visitor came to see the Wall. The Wall That Heals, a half-scale replica of the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., arrived on Marco Island Tuesday, to the thunderous accompaniment of a motorcycle escort made up of hundreds of Vietnam veterans.
Wednesday morning at 7 a.m., the wall opened to the public, and will remain open 24 hours a day through 5 p.m. Saturday at Veterans’ Community Park. Just like the original, the Traveling Wall is inscribed with the names of all the United States armed forces members killed in the Vietnam conflict, over 58,000 of them.
With a two-year waiting list to host the wall, Marco was lucky to get the opportunity, said Lee Rubenstein, who served as chair of the Traveling Wall Committee that brought it to the island. A cancellation by another city opened up a window for the wall, and it included December 7, hallowed in American military history as Pearl Harbor Day, the anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet that launched the U.S. into World War II.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become the most-visited war memorial in the country, and the traveling Wall That Heals was created to bring that healing to people everywhere in the country, said Rubenstein.
“It’s designed for people who can’t travel to D.C. to see the wall. If one person comes here and can let go the past and is relieved, it’s well worth it,” he said. Bringing the wall to Marco Island cost around $18,000, and took the work of hundreds of volunteers, planning, raising funds, and helping to install it when it reached the island.
People stood by the wall, looking at the long, long list of names, their faces reflecting in the black surface. Larry and Therese Schmidt of Marco Island had been to see the memorial in Washington, but still came to view the traveling wall. They have a daughter serving with the armed forces in Kosovo, said Therese.
Wednesday afternoon at 3 p.m., organizers held a dedication ceremony at the site. Hundreds gathered in the bright sun to greet the wall, pay their respects, and listen to veterans and local dignitaries say what it meant to them. Before the speeches, 29 young musicians from the Marco Island Charter Middle School jazz band played patriotic music, and a Civil Air Patrol airplane buzzed the park twice in a flyover. On the ground, a Vietnam-era jeep and a Cobra helicopter, both complete with mounted .50 caliber machine guns, stood guard next to the wall, with its powder-coated aluminum panels laser-etched with the names of the fallen.
Rabbi Edward Maline led an opening prayer, noting that the Vietnam War was one of the most contentious in our nation’s history.
“The waging of war must not be our only way to end conflict,” said Maline. A color guard from the Marco Island Police Dept. presented the colors, with Florida state and Marco city flags joining Old Glory, and Rubenstein led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Speaker after speaker spoke of the wall, sacrifice, and our country. Of the 58,267 combat deaths represented on the wall, the majority were aged 22 or younger, the audience was told. There were 8,283 19-year-olds, and 12 17-year-olds killed. Eight of the dead were women, all nurses killed while tending the wounded.
“We have the chance over the next four days to share, remember, and heal,” said Marco City Council Chairman Jerry Gibson.
Speaker Anthony Belushia lamented the increasing isolation of military from the population as a whole.
“We are developing an elite military caste,” he said. “One percent of us is defending the other 99 percent,” a different take on numbers that have been prominent in the news recently.
Along with the wall and the vintage war machines, a mobile museum and information center stand at the site. There is no charge to visit the memorial, although donations are accepted. Money raised will go to the Washington Veterans Memorial and the Marco Veterans Memorial for future enhancements.
Thursday and Friday at 1:30 p.m., and Saturday at noon, names of Florida veterans killed in action was scheduled at the wall, and a closing ceremony with the playing of “Taps” will be held Saturday at 3:30 p.m. The Wall closes to the public at 5, so the work of packing it up for its next stop can begin.
1:30 p.m. – Reading of Names of Floridians and others killed in action; concluding with “Taps.”
Noon – Reading of Names of Floridians and others killed in action.
3:30 p.m. – Closing Day Ceremony, Lee Rubenstein, emcee; ceremony concludes with “Taps.”
5 p.m. – Traveling Wall closes to the public.
All events to be held at Veterans’ Community Park (corner of Park Avenue and Bald Eagle).