Traveling Vietnam wall brings tears and admiration

Barbara Hootman

The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, a moving half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is making a visit to the Valley. Coming Sept. 9-14 to the Harley-Davidson of Asheville motorcycle dealership in Swannanoa will be a ribbon of granite carved with 58,307 names of the men and women who fought and died for their country in Vietnam.

The Traveling Wall dates back to 1982 and has been visited by millions of people, in more than 410 locations. Betty Melton, mother of Wesley E. Melton, who died in Vietnam, always visits the Traveling Wall when it is in the Valley.

“I never miss a chance,” Melton said. “I went to Washington, D.C., to hold my hand on Wesley’s name five years ago, and I can’t put into words how moving the experience was. I felt a real connection with him there. I told him I had come to visit and talk with him.

“Visiting the Traveling Wall ... is a way to honor my son and all the others who died, and especially to remember those from Owen High School who gave their lives.”

According to the Asheville chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, 216,000 North Carolinians served in the Vietnam War. More than 1,600 of the names inscribed on the wall are from N.C. More than 159 were from Western North Carolina.

Wesley Melton had just turned 20 and had served less than five months when he stepped on a landmine on April 29, 1970.

“His captain, Keith Skills, came to see me two years ago,” Betty Melton said, “and said, ‘Mrs. Melton I am so sorry.’ I told him not to be sorry, that he and Wesley were doing what they were called to do. He seemed relieved.”

Betty is close to many veterans from World War II and the Vietnam War.

“I write to over 80 veterans about every three weeks,” she said. “It is something personal that I can do for them.”

She also visits her son’s grave in the Western Carolina Veterans Cemetery in Black Mountain at least once weekly. “There is never a day that goes by that I don’t think about Wesley,” she said.

The wall, which can be viewed 24 hours a day, will arrive at the motorcycle dealership between 12:30-1 p.m. Sept. 8, escorted by The Patriot Guard. The opening ceremony is at 7 p.m. Sept. 9 and will involve guest speakers and the laying of the wreath by the Blue/Gold Star Mothers.

The 7 p.m. Sept. 10 Missing Man Ceremony will involve a 1776 21-gun salute by The Honor Guard, as well as guest speakers. At 7 p.m. Sept. 11, the Patriotic Ceremony will honor 9/11 first responders. A 7 p.m. Sept. 12 ceremony will be held to retire any U.S. flags people might have.

On Sept. 13, the 7 p.m. closing ceremony will include music with bagpipers, the playing of Taps and the release of doves.

The Asheville chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, a not-for-profit organization, is bringing the wall to Swannanoa at a cost of $25,000.

To help with the costs, send checks payable to Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 124, PO Box 9468, Asheville, NC 28815. Donations are tax-exempt. For more, call 367-2804.

Owen High School students who died in the Vietnam War

Wendell I. Brown, CPT US Air Force

Wesley E. Melton, PFC US Army

Donald W. Wright, CPT USMC

H. Coleman Wright, Jr., LCPL USMC

J. Bruce Harris, SP4 US Army

Ronald L. Hurst, PFC US Army

Billy G. Stewart, PFC USMC

J.W. Hansard III, CPL USMC

J. Onley Weaver, CPL USMC

Bruce C. Elkins, SGT US Army