From The ‘Wall That Heals’ to Veterans Voices

From The ‘Wall That Heals’ to Veterans Voices

Contributed by Miriam Anderson Lytle, Gail Borden Public Library District, Elgin, IL.


It was a warm September day when The Wall That Heals drove into town. It was hailed on streets lined with school children waving American flags. A solemn parade of Warriors’ Watch Riders, fire trucks, dignitaries end-capped by Elgin Police Department squad cars rumbled through green-flashing signal lights. There was no stopping this semi-truck and its fans en route to Elgin’s city plaza. Vietnam Vets welcome here. Tears streamed down cheeks though most donned sunglasses to disguise emotion. It had been nearly 40 years since the war ended, but hearts were still broken, families still destroyed, a nation unhealed.

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The desire to honor these fallen soldiers and their still wounded walking comrades was evident. Over the next 96 hours, 150 volunteers watched over The Wall That Heals, day and night. Volunteers set up and took down the half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.

“I used to keep Vietnam in a little black strong box in the back of my mind. Now there is a mouse hole in it.”
-Vietnam veteran, Elgin, Illinois, November 2013

A mother stood by The Wall and traced her 90-year-old finger over, and over, across her son’s engraved name. He was so young when killed in battle. She had never ventured to DC to see the Memorial. Someone in the community had placed a flag at the base of every panels. Librarians and Vietnam Veteran Jack Darr researched and listed the name and photos of local boys. Illinois’ Fox Valley area had sacrificed 43 young men to the conflict. But those who came home were still hurting. One vet stood reading the names, looking for one in particular. Then he recognized a man, much older than he remembered, doing the same. They were looking for each other’s names. The unexpected reunion commenced with hugs, backslapping, the story told and retold from everyone who heard those cries of joy.

While Vietnam veterans and their families knew the meaning of this Wall, most did not. School buses of children made field trips, teachers and volunteer docents explained its meaning. Context was given to what seemed unimaginable. The Illinois U-46 School District sent out a note to parents and teachers. It is difficult to explain Vietnam to children. To anyone.

Now we are trying to do it. Again.

The Big Read ran from September 1 through November 11, 2013. It was a multi-faceted multi-partnered project surrounding Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Thousands of people participated. None were more impacted than our very own Vietnam veterans and their families.

The veterans involved with The Big Read felt different afterwards. They had been seen. Heard. They had Spoken. And they are speaking still. Veterans Voices was launched in 2017, reaching 3300 school children in classrooms.

What is Veterans Voices?

eterans Voices is a program provided by the Gail Borden Public Library District that connects volunteer veterans with students. Drawing on the power of personal stories, Veterans Voices enhances and brings to life the experiences of veterans and honors their contributions.

Volunteer speakers hold “conversations with a veteran” at Elgin-area schools and other locations.

Conversations can be as structured or as formal as you like, and as small or as large as you like. Veterans will discuss their experiences during conversations.

In 2018, 40 veterans will be speaking in more than 140 classrooms throughout the Elgin Illinois area about Veterans Day. There is no warmongering, no political agenda, no recruitment, nor aggrandizement. It’s just that kids need to know — we all need to know. These men and women that served us continue to share their stories. And we thank them.

Solemn parade

Volunteers watch Wall

Hearts broken

The Big Read

Veterans Voices