WESTVILLE | A colossal black and white POW/MIA flag waved gracefully Tuesday from atop a construction crane, signaling something big was happening in Westville.
The American Veterans Traveling Tribute — featuring a 360-foot, 80 percent scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. — had arrived at Purdue University North Central.
As the sun set on the university’s baseball field, where the wall was displayed, the Rev. Steven Laue prayed over the nearly 400 people who attended the opening ceremonies for the traveling shrine.
Laue, LaPorte hospital chaplain, said the names of 58,479 servicemen and women on the wall were "names with a story … names of those who are no longer with us physically, but are with us spiritually.”
As the evening’s guest speaker, former Indiana Gov. and South Bend Mayor Joe Kernan — himself a North Vietnamese prisoner of war for 11 months in 1972 — recounted his stories of friends whose names are on the wall.
“I’ve had the chance to say hello to some buddies,” said Kernan, of visiting the wall before the ceremonies. “It’s an intensely personal experience.”
The wall arrived about 11 a.m. at PNC after a 35-mile trek from Hammond that “shut down” most lanes of the Borman Expressway, said Steve “Headdog” Moore, president of the Wall Gang, a Michigan City veterans support organization. Moore said nearly 500 motorcycles and police and fire department vehicles escorted the wall on the expressway.
Most names on the wall represented soldiers who were between 19 and 22 years old, Moore said.
“They gave up two lives,” Moore said. “One they were living and one they were about to live.”
Charles Wilson, of Wanatah, and his sister, Jerri Tucker, of Valparaiso, attended the ceremony. They used a computer in the information tent to find the name of their cousin, Earl Clifford, on the wall.
“He was like a little brother to me,” said Wilson, clutching paper and a black crayon to trace Clifford’s name. “I go by his grave every week.”
PNC Chancellor James Dworkin said the shrine was the largest traveling exhibit of the Vietnam memorial and represented “heroism, courage and valor.”
“Just being in the wall’s presence is humbling,” said Dworkin, reflecting the tone of the evening.
Kernan, who has visited the national memorial, said the replica “is as powerful as the wall in Washington.”
“This is a big deal,” said Kernan. “Not every community gets the opportunity to have the wall in their community. It reminds us all of the kind of service and sacrifice men and women have made on our behalf.”
The American Veterans Traveling Tribute will remain open to the public 24 hours a day until the Saturday closing ceremonies. Visit www.pnc.edu/avtt/ for a complete schedule and information.