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They Inspire Us


“Honoring the Grandfather I Never Met” by Megan Rihn

Ever since I can remember, I have been traveling to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with my family to honor my grandfather, SP4 Joel D. Coleman, who was killed in action in Vietnam in May of 1966.

My mother was a baby when he died, so neither of us ever knew him. But the stories my grandmother tells about him have been an important part of our family tradition.

I like the story about the day my mom was born. The Army was not going to allow my grandfather to come home to Pittsburgh to see my mom. He did everything he could to get there, but they would not allow it. My 4’11” great-grandmother then decided to take on the U.S. Army and get him home to see his newborn daughter. As it turns out, she got her way! My grandfather showed up at the hospital with flowers and surprised my grandmother. Everyone knew that he was coming home except my grandmother. She was thrilled.

My grandfather had to leave for Vietnam on Dec. 22, 1965. My mom was only two and a half months old. His leaving was very difficult, but being three days before Christmas made it even worse. He gave my grandmother a gold watch that year—little did she know that it would be the last gift he would ever give her. The night my family took him to the airport, he told my grandmother that the Army was sending him someplace safe. He didn’t want her to worry, but she knew better. Vietnam was a very dangerous place. His leaving put a hole in her heart. She had a feeling that she would never see him again and that she would be left to raise my mom alone.

My grandmother wrote to my grandfather every day and sometimes sent him care packages. In his letters, he would tell her how things were going with him and his unit, but never anything that would make her worry. But once again, she knew better. My grandfather also sent letters to family and friends. Only from these letters did she know how terrible things really were for him. He would spend many weeks away from camp, living in foxholes and getting very little sleep. He would jump out of helicopters behind enemy lines and come into close combat with the North Vietnamese Army. He sent several pictures of himself and his buddies enjoying the care packages sent from home. The pictures show that life there was rough, but he and his buddies still had some good times together.

My grandmother described to me the night my grandfather died. The night before she received the telegram from the Army, she took my mom out to buy her first pair of shoes. It was May 5, 1966. She told me that when they were shopping, she noticed the strongest aroma of roses, at approximately 6:30 p.m. The following day, an officer and chaplain sent by the Army arrived at her house to tell her that my grandfather had been killed at 6:30 p.m. the day before. He was so young, only 21 years old.

My family remembers and honors my grandfather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Attending Memorial Day, Veterans Day and a few Father’s Day ceremonies, as well as volunteering at The Wall, have been a huge part of my life over the past 18 years.

I have learned a lot about the Vietnam War and The Wall from those visits, and I have also learned a lot from doing multiple school projects about the Memorial and what it means to my family. In fifth grade, I was given an assignment to interview someone about a major event in his or her life and write a book about it. As a curious 10-year-old who had grown up hearing stories about my grandfather, I chose to interview my grandmother, Susan Coleman, about when my grandfather received his orders for Vietnam. My book was picked out of 150 submitted and put in our middle school’s library. Four copies of the book were printed and bound: one for my school, one for my grandmother, one for my mom and one to leave at The Wall.

I also chose to incorporate the Vietnam Veterans Memorial into my high school graduation project. I decided to raise money for the Education Center at The Wall, which will be a place to tell the stories and put faces to the names of the many men and women whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

I wrote a letter asking for donations and sent it to veterans’ organizations around the Pittsburgh area, as well as a few others nationally. I also collected donations at my high school. Overall, I raised $1,078—more than double my original goal.

This project was special to me because of my family’s connection to The Wall. It is important to me that my grandfather is remembered and his story is told, as well as the stories of the more than 58,000 other service members whose names are on The Wall.

I know that, as time goes on, I will continue learning about my grandfather’s life. And someday, I will tell those stories to my children and visit The Wall with them, just as my mom and grandmother did with me. My grandfather will always be a hero to my family, and we will never forget him.

JOEL DANIEL COLEMAN is honored on Panel 7E, Row 29 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

They Inspire Us


“Learning About a Hometown Hero” by McKenzie Mathewson and Shannon Kievit

The National Call for Photos—Put A Face With A Name—Our “Hometown Hero.” Our history teacher thought it would be a great project for us to research the person from our town whose name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She thought it could be tied into our annual Veterans Day commemoration. As she described the project, we were intrigued. It sounded like an easy report.

We had no idea the impact Michael Jonas Pynnonen would have on our lives.

Who was this young man who died over 40 years ago? Research began with the last years of Mike’s life. His high school yearbook gave us pictures. Our teacher knew his cousin and his sister. They, in turn, gave us the names of Mike’s high school buddies, who shared stories of Mike’s life as he grew up in Lewiston, Michigan. They shared stories about his days as a football and basketball star. The girls remembered that Mike was so handsome.

Talking with his sister was an extremely moving experience for us. We found out that his death was incredibly hard on her, and even to this day, she hasn’t been able to make a visit to The Wall. Something that happened decades ago still affects her greatly.

We discovered something neither of us had expected: The names on The Wall had faces. The faces became real people for us. The emotional impact of this research was overwhelming.

When we began the project, our hometown hero was someone unknown to us, but we came to feel sadness for such a loss, compassion for his family and friends, and gratitude for his service to our country.

A trip to Washington, D.C., gave us the opportunity to visit The Wall. There was Mike’s name. We were moved to tears. Seeing all of those names was a heart-wrenching experience.

All of those people’s names made us think about what they sacrificed. They all had hopes, dreams and families. So many of their own personal hopes and dreams never came true.

As for their families, they were crushed when the news came about the death of their loved ones. We can only imagine the pain caused by losing someone so tragically. It was awful to think of all the wives who would never see their husbands again; children growing up without fathers; and the mothers and fathers who lost their children. Sitting there at The Wall made us think about all the emotions attached to that wall of names. The thought of putting a face with every name seemed very appropriate.

In the past, we had not always had an interest in history. Then, we realized that the stories of the people whose names are on The Wall are our history. It struck us that history really is important. Now, it is not just a book that spits facts at us; history is alive. Today, we are honored to be learning about the things that happened in the past.

Without that emotional experience of learning about Michael Pynnonen and seeing all of those names on The Wall, we wouldn’t have been able to connect with history as we do today. Through this whole experience, we have learned many values and the importance of our country.

By speaking with groups in our community, we hope we have inspired others to find out how they can help build the Education Center at The Wall. More importantly, we hope that other students will honor their hometown heroes by researching their lives. It will make history come alive for them, too.

By working on this project, we have developed a new appreciation for our country, realizing the price of freedom.

Our hearts have been touched. Our minds have been opened to the past.

MICHAEL JONAS PYNNONEN is honored on Panel 12W, Row 58 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

They Inspire Us

612 Heroes from Connecticut

“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 20thanniversary 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.

You can see all of the heroes from Connecticut here.

Lyndon and Smoyer
They Inspire Us


“With Dreams to Pursue: Remembering Two Young Men” by James Wright

I grew up in a mining town, Galena, Ill.  With four friends, I joined the Marines in 1957 at the age of 17—to keep me out of the mines for at least a few years. When I returned in 1960, I decided to go to college—but I needed to work in the mines while in school.  My boss when I worked underground was Clarence Lyden. He was a good boss, a good man, who had received a Purple Heart while serving in the Army in World War II.  He encouraged me to become a powderman, setting dynamite charges, in order to earn 20 cents more an hour. I did take on this assignment and continued to study—and was a student teacher back in my old high school.

One of my students in an English class was Clarence Lyden’s son, Michael. I remember him as an energetic, pleasant, hard-working young man. A few years later, he was drafted and went into the Army, where he became a sergeant in the 101st Airborne. Already holding a Purple Heart, Michael died on May 15, 1969 in Operation Apache Snow at a place we remember as Hamburger Hill.

The Wall records the sons—and daughters—of many miners, factory workers, farmers and so many others.  The Wall contains the names of 15 graduates of Dartmouth College. I did not know any of them.  But I came to know well the father, the sister, the brother, the classmates, the coach and teammates of one.

Bill Smoyer grew up in comfortable circumstances in New Jersey. At Dartmouth, he was an All-Ivy soccer player and a star hockey player. He was by all accounts a gracious and generous young man, a gentleman. And he joined the Marines in order to go to Vietnam because he believed that wars should not be fought only by the sons of the miners, farmers and factory workers. He was in Vietnam for only two weeks on July 28, 1968 when his platoon was caught in an ambush while crossing a rice paddy at An Hoa.  2nd Lt. Smoyer and 18 other members of Kilo company, 3rd Battalion Seventh Marines were killed that Sunday.

Who knows what Billy Smoyer and Mike Lyden would have done with their lives?  Mike may have gone back to work at the Kraft Foods plant in Galena—he did not want to follow his dad into the mines. His old teacher here believes that whatever he did, he would have done well. Billy Smoyer was a history major who may have gone into business—but all attest that whatever he did, he would have tried to make a difference for others.

In the summer of 2009, my wife, Susan, and I visited Normandy, where we spent a lot of time walking through the American cemetery at Colleville. The white marble crosses and Stars of David filled the hillside with a sense of order and tranquility—and whispered of lives lost. We walked among the graves for some time, reading the names, observing where they were from and how old they were. We thought of lives cut short and of dreams unrealized and wanted to know more about them.

Casualties of war cry out to be known—as persons, not as abstractions called “casualties” nor as numbers entered into the books, and not only as names chiseled into marble or granite.  We have carried in our memories the stories of those recorded here, but memories fade, as do those who remember. We are graying. After all of us who knew them are gone, the names on The Wall will endure.

It is essential that the Education Center planned for a site near The Wall sparkle with the human records of those whose sacrifice was forever. We need to ensure that here, in this place of memory, lives as well as names are recorded—lives with smiling human faces, remarkable accomplishments, engaging personalities and with dreams to pursue. We do this for them, for history and for those in the future who will send the young to war.

MICHAEL P. LYDEN is honored on Panel 24W, Row 18 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

WILLIAM STANLEY SMOYER is honored on Panel 50W, Row 28 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

They Inspire Us


“Never Stop Trying” by Jan C. Scruggs

All of us have had the experience of wanting something so badly and then not achieving it. As we are taught from our youth, most of us pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and try again.

This reaction is not always instantaneous. Some might need time to nurse bruised egos or lick their wounds—but not Clifton Cushman.

This extraordinary young man from Grand Forks, North Dakota, had known incredible success and heart-wrenching failure in his young life. He won a silver medal in the 1960 Olympic games in Rome in the 400-meter hurdles.

In 1964, while competing in the Olympic trials in Los Angeles to earn a spot on the American Olympic team, he hit a hurdle during the race and fell, eliminating himself from the competition.

We can only imagine how crushing this disappointment was to the one-time Olympian. But instead of sulking, Cushman wrote a remarkably upbeat letter to the young people of his home town, encouraging them to set goals for themselves. At the time, the letter was printed in the Grand Forks Herald on the front page and has been reprinted nationally many times since then.

He did very well in sports at the University of Kansas and, after graduation, joined the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Vietnam.

On Sept. 25, 1966, he was conducting an afternoon combat mission to bomb a railroad bridge located on the northeast railroad line approximately one mile north-northeast of Kep MiG base and 29 miles northeast of Bac GiangLang Son Province, North Vietnam. His plane was hit by anti-aircraft artillery fire and broke into several pieces. Observers saw his seat eject from the wreckage, but his body was not found. He was declared dead in 1975.

It has been many years since Cliff Cushman set athletic records in his hometown, but the people of Grand Forks have not forgotten him. Grand Forks Central High School named its football stadium after him, and some of his high school athletic records have stood for 50 years.  In 1997, the Cushman Classic was inaugurated, a high school football match up between Grand Forks Central and Red River High Schools. Most local athletes have heard the letter, and it is read annually before the kickoff of this event.

The letter is reprinted here. All these years later, it still has the power to inspire. After all he had been through, Cliff Cushman sought to use his experience to help other young people. Knowing what was in store for him and how his life would end in service to his country just a few short years later makes this hero seem even more remarkable and selfless.

To The Youth of Grand Forks . . .

Don’t feel sorry for me.  I feel sorry for some of you!  You may have seen the U.S. Olympic Trials on television September 13.  If so, you watched me hit the fifth hurdle, fall and lie on the track in an inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees, and injured pride, unsuccessful in my attempt to make the Olympic team for the second time.  In a split second all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters, and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out.  But I tried.  I would much rather fail knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never have tried at all.

This is not to say that everyone is capable of making the Olympic Team.  However, each of you is capable of trying to make your own personal “Olympic Team,” whether it be the high school football team, the glee club, the honor roll, or whatever your goal may be.  Unless your reach exceeds your grasp, how can you be sure what you can attain?  And don’t you think there are things better than cigarettes, hot-rod cars, school dropouts, excessive make-up, and ducktail grease-cuts?

Over fifteen years ago I saw a star-first place in the Olympic Games.  I literally started to run after it.  In 1960 I came within three yards of grabbing it; this year I stumbled, fell and watched it recede four more years away.  Certainly, I was very disappointed in falling flat on my face.  However, there is nothing I can do about it now but get up, pick the cinders from my wounds, and take one more step, followed by one more and one more, until the steps turn into miles and the miles into success.

I know I may never make it.  The odds are against me but I have something in my favor-desire and faith.  Romans 5:3-5 has always had an inspirational meaning to me in this regard, “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”  At least I am going to try.

How about you?  Would a little extra effort on your part bring up you grade average?  Would you have a better chance to make the football team if you stayed an extra 15 minutes after practice and worked on your blocking?

Let me tell you something about yourselves.  You are taller and heavier than any past generation in this country.  You are spending more money, enjoying more freedom, and driving more cars than ever before, yet many of you are very unhappy.  Some of you have never known the satisfaction of doing your best in sports, the joy of excelling in class, the wonderful feeling of completing a job, any job, and looking back on it knowing that you have done your best.

I dare you to have your hair cut and not wilt under the comments of your so-called friends.  I dare you to clean up your language.  I dare you to honor your mother and father.  I dare you to go to church without having to be compelled to go by your parents.  I dare you to unselfishly help someone less fortunate than yourself and enjoy the wonderful feeling that goes with it.  I dare you to become physically fit.  I dare you to read a book that is not required in school.  I dare you to look up at the stars, not down at the mud, and set your sights on one of them that, up to now, you thought was unattainable.  There is plenty of room at the top, but no room for anyone to sit down.

Who knows?  You may be surprised at what you can achieve with sincere effort.  So get up, pick the cinders out of your wounds, and take one more step.

I dare you!

CLIFTON EMMET CUSHMAN is honored on Panel 11E, Row 13 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.