A 15-year-old boy, who lied about his age to be able to fight in the Vietnam War. Twelve female nurses. Eight clergymen. And over 58,000 others.
Although they may never have met, each shares a tragic and heroic destiny forged by war: Each of the 58,257 names inscribed on the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, that will be on view at Calverton National Cemetery from Wednesday through Friday, is forever memorialized.
"Behind every name, there is a story," said Charles Spencer, chairman of the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall.
And Spencer, a funeral director who has been involved with the project since 1995, has made it his personal mission to ensure that no one's story is forgotten.
Spencer said he was invited to bring the memorial to Calverton National Cemetery because it is the largest cemetery for veterans in the United States, with over a quarter of a million buried within its grassy knolls. "They take care of all the veterans, after they pass away for eternity. What better place to honor our veterans?" he asked.
Since the exhibit began its journey, the faux granite replica wall, which measures 240 feet long and is eight feet high -- three quarters of the size of the original -- has visited over 250 cities in states across the country including Hawaii and Alaska, Maine and Florida. This weekend's event is most likely the last time it will be seen on Long Island, Spencer said.
"The Vietnam vets of America were never welcomed home. This is a welcome home to them," Spencer said. The goal of the program is to give many who would never have the chance to see the Washington, DC monument an opportunity to experience the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
Many of the individuals working to transport the wall on its journey across America are Vietnam veterans with post traumatic stress disorder, and the task is "therapeutic," Spencer said.
This weekend, Vietnam veterans will bring visitors on a tour of the wall, telling the stories behind the names and giving them life and heart. "We take people on tours and tell them all the secrets of the wall," he said.
"These are the people I went to school with, my neighbors, my friends," Spencer said. "Except that I got older, and they never did. They're forever in their twenties." The youngest soldier on the wall died at 15 -- he lied about his age to be able to serve.
The Dignity Memorial Wall will be open at Calverton from Wednesday through Sunday, 24 hours a day, for public viewing.
An opening ceremony will be held on Friday night, with a candelight service on Friday evening to honor the missing in action. "The wall is so reflective when you have candlelight," Spencer said.
A service will also be held on Saturday morning and another candlelight service will be held on Saturday night.
The search continues for those missing in action, Spencer said; one MIA veteran was recently found. "After all these years, we're getting close to finding them."
The wall, Spencer added, also serves as an education for children who normally learn about the war in books. "Here, you can talk to the people that made history," he said. "Vietnam vets take you on the tour and can tell you about walking through the jungle, about the spiders -- and the enemy," he said. "It's a beautiful thing."
A helicopter flown in Vietnam will also be onhand, along with a Vietnam veteran pilot. "There's a lot to see," Spencer said.