Vietnam War veterans who built memorial reflect on its meaning

MIKE CONLEY/MCDOWELL NEWS

The McDowell County Salute to Veterans at the Senior Center is the result of foresight, dedication and hard work by a small group of Vietnam War veterans. They had the vision and the determination to build something that would not only pay tribute to those who wore the uniform but provides some assistance to our local veterans. This group called themselves the Six Pack. At the memorial are (from left) Vietnam War veterans Bob Smith, Lawrence Reel, Randy Hollifield, Frank McGee and Willis Vance. Terry Duncan was also a part of the Six Pack but he passed away a year and a half ago of cancer attributed to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.

For Memorial Day or any day for that matter, McDowell County is fortunate to have not one but two special places set aside to honor and remember those who made the supreme sacrifice for the defense of our nation.

On the lawn of the McDowell County Courthouse, the first veterans memorial, which was erected in the late 1980s has been cleaned and placed in a new position so it will face the new Charters of Freedom display.

And at the McDowell Senior Center in Marion, the other county veterans memorial stands as a tribute to those who died while serving our country and those who survived the wars as well. The McDowell County Salute to Veterans is the result of foresight, dedication and hard work by a small group of Vietnam War veterans. They had the vision and the determination to build something that would not only pay tribute to those who wore the uniform but provides some assistance to our local veterans.

For this Memorial Day, the group gathered recently to talk with a McDowell News reporter about what it took to make this memorial wall a reality six years after its dedication.

In 2010, Vietnam War veteran Randy Hollifield attended a reunion of his Army buddies in Branson, Mo. Hollifield served with the 2nd Battalion, 94th Artillery.

In Branson, he heard from a friend about the American Veterans Traveling Tribute, which consists of a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and other salutes to America’s veterans. Hollifield successfully led the effort to bring this traveling replica to Marion and it was on display here in May of 2012 in time for Memorial Day.

As part of this effort, Hollifield and other Vietnam War veterans started thinking about creating a special place that would list the names of the men who died in war and also pay tribute to living veterans or deceased ones who did not die in combat.

Bob Smith, who is also a retired Army veteran of the Vietnam War, worked on this project with Hollifield. He did two tours of Vietnam and was with the 20th Transportation Company.

They were joined by fellow Vietnam War veterans Terry Duncan, Willis Vance, Frank McGee and Lawrence Reel. Duncan served in the Air Force while Vance was in the Army with the 18th Engineer Combat Brigade. McGee served in the Marine Corps with the 1st Marine Division, 2nd Battalion. Reel was in the Air Force’s 355th Tactical Fighters Squadron and 612th Tactical Fighters Squadron.

This group called themselves “the Six Pack.”

Frank Dean, another veteran, suggested the sale of the commemorative bricks to raise money for the Salute to Veterans event in May 2012. This effort carried over to the building of the more permanent tribute.

In August of 2012, a ground-breaking ceremony was held on a piece of land between the Senior Center’s gazebo and the Corpening YMCA. The McDowell County Commissioners strongly supported the idea but no county money was used.

“This was done totally with donations and help from the community,” said Hollifield. “No public funds were used.”

Hollifield traveled to Elberton, Ga. to meet with Dale Willis of Willis Dimensional Stone, which provided the granite at minimal cost and delivered it to Marion. A couple of contractors offered to build it at cost. The Woodmen of the World had donated a flagpole for the traveling tribute in May 2012 and the Six Pack planned to use it for the permanent memorial. Don Brooks, also a veteran, provided the crane to set the granite blocks in place. Greg Daniels with Blue Ridge Monuments also assisted with the completion.

“Everybody we went to was very supportive of the project,” said Smith. “We had so many people who stepped up the plate on this.”

Day after day in the cold winter weather and the hot spring climate, the Six Pack was out there working to complete this memorial. “The Senior Center fed us every day and supplied materials,” said Smith.

Six years ago, the work was done and the McDowell County Salute to Veterans was dedicated in time for Memorial Day 2013.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is this group here,” said Reel. “There were some naysayers who thought we couldn’t pull this off.”

“We got it done and we got done right,” said Vance.

Since the dedication, the Six Pack has been reduced to five with the passing of Duncan. He died a year and a half ago of cancer attributed to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.

Like its counterpart at the courthouse, the memorial at the Senior Center lists the names of all of the McDowell County veterans who died during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. And behind that center section is the wall with the commemorative bricks purchased to honor other veterans, who may have died after a war or still living.

The wall was designed to hold 1,248 bricks. At this time, there are 1,087 engraved bricks with space available for 161 more. Smith said there is a future project to add room for another couple of hundred.

The money made from the sale of these commemorative bricks goes to support and maintain the memorial and assist local veterans. Through this effort, ramps for disabled veterans have been built and flag cases have been provided for the families of deceased ones.

In that sense, it is a living memorial that continues to help others. The construction of it also helped these men heal from some of the internal struggles from that long and controversial war. As fellow Vietnam veterans, they could easier relate to what each other was going through. They also reflect on those buddies who lost their lives in that conflict from around 50 years ago.

“It was like a healing process to labor on this,” said Reel.

“This wall did a whole lot for me because if I had a problem, I can sit down and talk to them,” said McGee.

Hollifield, who is a former county commissioner, talked about the possibility of bringing the traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial back here.

“I am a native of this county,” he said. “I want to give back to the citizens of this county. You have to go out and do something for your home. And McDowell County is my home.”

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