They Were Our Friends


“A Spirit that Does Not Compromise” by Michael Heisley

I first met Rocky Versace when we were young boys growing up in Alexandria, Va., in 1950. As young boys, we had arguments and even a few fights. Rocky always maintained his opinion and never relented. Over the years, from grade school through high school and college, our friendship matured and grew stronger. After graduation from college— Georgetown for me and West Point for Rocky—we corresponded by mail and telephone.

Rocky was posted first in the United States, then in South Korea. Later, he served two tours in Vietnam, back when the U.S. troops were primarily advisors.

On Rocky’s last night of leave before returning to Vietnam to complete his second tour of duty, he dined with me and my wife Agnes in our home. At dinner, Rocky informed us he was leaving the service after his second tour. He planned to become a priest in the Maryknoll Order and stay in Vietnam to work with orphanages for the children of Vietnam, whom he deeply loved. I promised to help him with his dream.

We parted, never to see each other again.

Months later, while living in Dallas, Texas, my wife and I learned from a television news report that Capt. Rocky Versace had been wounded and captured by the Viet Cong on Oct. 29, 1963. I will never forget that evening. I told Agnes, “I fear we will never see Rocky again. Rocky has a spirit that does not compromise. He will not bend or break. They will have to kill him.”

Over the next several years, Agnes and I prayed for his release and waited for news about Rocky. From time to time, we got vague reports about the Viet Cong marching him from village to village for propaganda purposes.

Finally, our worst fears were realized when we learned that Rocky had been executed on Sept. 26, 1965.

Rocky’s belief in God, his love of his country and his commitment to West Point’s code of Duty, Honor and Country had finally convinced his captors that they could not break him—they could only kill him.

Almost 40 years later, on a sunny day in Alexandria, Va., the Captain Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated to the people of Alexandria who had died in Vietnam. At the center of the memorial is a statue of Rocky with his arms around two Vietnamese children.

Later that weekend, at a White House ceremony on July 8, 2002, my wife and I watched as President George W. Bush awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously to our friend Rocky. It was the first time an Army POW had been awarded the nation’s highest honor for actions in captivity.

I felt that, although his body was never recovered and still rested in some unknown, dark jungle clearing in the Mekong Delta, his spirit was at last home in Arlington National Cemetery, where a gravestone had been placed for him.

I erected a duplicate of Rocky’s Alexandria Vietnam Veterans Memorial statue in front of my home in St. Charles, Ill. It has the American flag flanked by the POW/MIA flag and the West Point flag. It is a symbol for me and all who visit my home. And, it is a tribute to Rocky and the men and women who gave their lives in service to their country. Every day, it reminds me of Rocky.

No day passes that I don’t look at that memorial and remember the man, the patriot and my great friend.

HUMBERT ROQUE VERSACE is honored on Panel 1E, Row 33 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

They Were Our Friends


“My Silent Partner” by Barbara L. Smith

Bob Farrington was my fiancé.  We became engaged before he left for Vietnam, where he was a scout helicopter pilot.  He loved flying. He loved adventure. He loved life. Yet, three months after reporting to Vietnam, he was dead.  Bob was 24 years old; I was 26.

Bob was the sole surviving son of his family. His parents were dead, and he was raised by his grandmother.  He was a wonderful man—sensitive to the needs of others, but with a funny streak that could keep you laughing for hours. We met on Easter eve 1968, and we spent many hours investigating the areas surrounding where he was stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, either on his motorcycle or in his new Mustang convertible.

But, since I was not family, I did not receive information about how he died. And, for 30 years, I lived with the questions:  Did he suffer? Or did he die quickly?

I lost Bob on Dec. 11, 1969. In June 1999, almost 30 years later, I visited The Wall That Heals, a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, when it traveled to Mansfield, Pa.  There, I met John Anderson, The Wall That Heals site manager. When I asked him if he could use the computers in the information area to give me information about Bob, he became very excited and said, “He was a Blue Ghost!”  I did not know what he was talking about, but quickly learned that John was a medic in Bob’s unit, the Blue Ghosts. John hooked me up with those wonderful veterans who served with Bob.  Soon my questions were answered.  The members of the Blue Ghosts saved my life and helped me move on.

From that encounter in Pennsylvania, I decided I wanted to help people the way I had been helped. I wanted to help them find information, reconnect and remember those lost in Vietnam.  When John and his wife Linda retired in 2005, I became one of the site managers for The Wall That Heals.  I had gotten my commercial driver’s license and learned to drive a truck, which was challenging, several years before. But the rest of the work, helping people and teaching them about Vietnam, was easy. My previous job had been as an adult educator and manager.

As I brought The Wall That Heals to communities throughout the United States and Canada, I felt as if Bob were traveling with me, as a silent partner in my mission to help people remember and heal. We were a great team. Bob’s name was on The Wall, helping young and old remember that each name represented a loving member of a family, a friend, a buddy, a lover, a neighbor. I drove the truck, set up The Wall, set up the tent, trained the volunteers, collected donations, wrote reports and helped people find their special names on The Wall. Even when they thought it would be impossible to find the name, because they had so little information and maybe only a nickname, I was patient and persistent and was able to find many names for people. We were helping people reconnect and remember in our own way.

Throughout the four years that I was site manager, I always left yellow roses at the panel containing Bob’s name. We had given each other yellow roses while we were dating, and it was a symbol of our love. At each stop, I would approach The Wall, touch his name and say, “Here we go again.”  Even after 40 years, we were working together as a team. As I write this essay, I have a bouquet of yellow roses on my desk, reminding me of one man who died to give me freedom.

ROBERT DEAN FARRINGTON is honored on Panel 15W, Row 48 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.