Remembering 612 Connecticut Heroes

 

Remembering 612 Connecticut Heroes

by Tom Dzicek

 

As part of a school-wide enrichment program at Capt. Nathan Hale Middle School, I would ask local veterans to come and talk about their experiences. Small groups of students interviewed these veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The students were in absolute awe of the men and women who came in and not only spoke to them, but also brought a variety of war souvenirs. The students documented the interviews and compiled them into a book. The impact of presenting the book to the interviewed veterans was a truly moving experience.

History was coming alive for the students!

As part of those initial interviews, we discovered that two men from our small town of Coventry, Conn., were killed in Vietnam.

My students asked how many U.S. service personnel were killed in Vietnam; I was able to respond that it was 58,220. [At the time, this is how many names were on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This number changes as names are added to The Wall.]

How many, they asked, were from Connecticut? I didn’t know. A little research allowed me to answer that question the next day: 612 men from Connecticut died in the Vietnam War.  The students wanted to know more about the men, many of whom were not much older than they are now. What transpired as a result of this student curiosity had, and continues to have, an impact on the students, the town and the state of Connecticut. 

After enlisting the support of staff and talking with students, we began the quest to learn more. There are 612 names of Connecticut servicemen on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Our project was to research each name and compile the information into a book.

Much information was readily available on the Internet. Students also contacted every newspaper, radio station and television station in the state. Many responses from family members, service buddies, veterans’ organizations and childhood friends were also used as we compiled information.

Simultaneously, reading and social studies cross-curriculum projects dealing with the Vietnam War were being conducted. In addition, an artistic portrayal of all 612 names was being placed on a wall near our new school auditorium. The artistic portrayal is a black map of Connecticut measuring 13 feet by 9 feet. Within this map are painted all 612 names of the Connecticut men who were lost in Vietnam, arranged by year of death, then alphabetically.

We coordinated with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C. to host the half-scale traveling replica of The Wall, called The Wall That Heals, in May 2002.  During the exhibition, the rough drafts of the 612 veterans’ biographies were available for visitors to read and add more information. Students were also available for on-the-spot interviews and further data collection. They also served as guides for visitors to the traveling replica, putting special emphasis on the 612 names from Connecticut.

Also, as part of the exhibition, students researched and displayed trivia cards dealing with life in the 1960s and 1970s. Display cases located across from the auditorium exhibited artifacts from the era and housed items on loan from people who wanted to share possessions from brothers, fathers and husbands who were killed or who had served in Vietnam.

To the best of our knowledge, nothing like this had been done before. As the project unfolded, we became aware that it would be the only place in the state where all the names of the Connecticut men lost in Vietnam were in one place available for public viewing. 

The project involved students from all grade levels, 6-8, who wrote, revised and edited biographical sketches; painted murals of scenes that related to the conflict; researched and developed trivia cards about the era; read about The Wall That Heals; and participated in units of study about the Vietnam conflict and the Vietnam era.

Personal interviews, radio interviews and phone interviews with friends and family members of the 612 servicemen provided insight and a personal touch to many of their stories.

The first four books “off the press” were placed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day 2002, which was also the 20th anniversary of The Wall. Jan Scruggs, founder and president of VVMF, personally accepted copies of the book on behalf of his organization.

Copies were also given to families of the fallen veterans as part of a student-conducted “Project Reflection” program, and a copy was mailed to every town in the state of Connecticut and to the Connecticut State Library.

Jean Risely of Coventry, Conn., was inspired by the 612 Project. Her brother, Robert Tillquist, was a combat medic and Distinguished Service Cross recipient who died in the Pleiku Campaign in Vietnam on Nov. 4, 1965. She wanted to create a memorial to honor her brother and all of the 612 Connecticut men, to thank them and to welcome them home.

Risely formed a group called the Connecticut Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee to raise money for the memorial and see it through to completion. Fundraising began in earnest in 2006; ground was broken in 2007; and the Connecticut Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated on May 17, 2008.

 

TOM DZICEK is a veteran and a teacher at Nathan Hale Middle School in Coventry, Conn. He is a member of VVMF’s Teach Vietnam Teachers Network, where educators at all grade levels share resources and ideas about teaching the Vietnam War in the classroom, and a member of the Advisory Board for the Education Center at The Wall.

For more information about the Connecticut Vietnam Veterans Memorial, visit www.cvvm.org.