STRAIGHT TALK: Paying respects to the fallen, 5 decades later


Steve Stefanides

America was a different place 50 years ago when we were engaged in the heat of a battle in Southeast Asia as part of a conflict that many to this day continue to attempt to understand. It was a conflict fought at the height of the Cold War and was an attempt to stop an evil seen by the West.

The Vietnam conflict was fought by the young men and women from our nation who were pressed into service in the 1960s and 1970s. They served with distinction and bravery in a conflict that would eventually topple a president in our own country and deeply divide our nation before it came to an end in April 1975 with the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam.

The women who served in this conflict were all volunteers, most assigned as nurses. Many other women came as part of the Red Cross and other aid organizations and were joined by female soldiers from New Zealand and Australia; they, too, paid a high price for their service.

This past week, our community once again paid their respects to those that had fallen in battle as part of their service to our nation, as the Wall that Heals returned to Veterans Community Park.

Many of those whose names are etched on this replica to the actual memorial found in Washington, D.C. were draftees. This stands in stark contrast with the military we have today, which is 100 percent volunteer.

For those of us who served during this time, the names on that wall have special significance. Brothers, sisters, cousins, friends and comrades all adorn the more than 58,000 names etched upon it. Names such as Saunders, Pearson, Saltmarsh and Demers all hold a special significance for me, as I am sure many do for others that walked the wall this last week.

On a Tuesday morning, many of my friends assembled and rode to the rest area in Fort Myers to escort the memorial to Marco. Many of those who rode that day from Marco and around Southwest Florida were veterans of that conflict. We accomplished the same mission in 2011 when we were honored to have the wall visit for the first time.

Members of the Marco Riders, the motorcycle group, worked to sign in the nearly 300 motorcyclists who escorted the wall back to Marco for its assembly and the opening ceremony.


At 12:30 p.m., we would all mount up behind the police escort that would close down I-75 for the solemn procession southbound to exit 101 and the trip into Marco. Along the way, you couldn't help but be moved by those that stood beside their vehicles on the on-ramps to I-75 as sheriff deputies halted traffic.

These men and women had their hats off and their hands over their hearts as a symbol of their respect for the fallen and for the many American flags that adorned our bikes and those of the escorts. An East Naples Fire-Rescue vehicle was parked on the overpass at Golden Gate Boulevard, with a firefighter standing atop the hose bed and saluting as we passed under the bridge in respect for those who had given their all.

When we turned down State Road 951 for the final leg of the journey with our precious cargo, we saw the roadways were lined with men, women and children who stood to honor the fallen heroes from five decades ago. No one I've spoken with that rode in that procession had a dry eye, for this was an overdue welcome that was denied to so many when they came home during those turbulent years.


The pride in our hearts almost burst through our chests as we rode across the Jolley Bridge. We would be greeted by a warm reception from so many here in the place where many of us now call home. They lined the sidewalks from the bridge and all along the roadway until the procession made the final turn into the Veterans Community Park to the anticipating crowd that had patiently waited for our arrival.

The work would then begin as volunteers assembled to erect the wall and the supporting infrastructure that would be in place until it was disassembled and we escorted it off the island to make its journey to the next community.

The island should be grateful for all the volunteers' time and hard work and giving us the opportunity to participate. We are also thankful for the cooperation of the city of Marco Island staff, the Lee and Collier counties sheriff's offices, Florida Highway Patrol and the personnel of the Marco Island police and fire departments along with many businesses and private donors.

This is a great island and a wonderful group of giving and caring people who should be proud of how they gave those names on that wall the respect they more than earned so many years ago, and are today receiving.