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Veterans to gather at Wall in Lockport this week

LOCKPORT – The traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial will be on display on the front lawn of the Lockport Town Hall Thursday through next Sunday, and it’s sure to be a moving experience for many visitors who are expected to come from all over the Northeast to see it.

The V-shaped wall is a three-fifths scale model of the official memorial in Washington, D.C. Like the real thing, the traveling wall, which was constructed and is maintained by a veterans’ organization in Brevard County, Fla., is inscribed with the names of 58,272 American service personnel killed in the Vietnam War. Of those, 79 were from Niagara County.

The traveling wall, which is shipped by truck, comprises a stack of panels that will be brought to Lockport Wednesday morning with a motorcycle escort by local bikers and veterans.

The wall, which is 6 feet high at the center and tapers toward the ends, is nearly 300 feet long and will cover almost the entire grassy space in front of Town Hall.

Opening ceremonies are set for 5 p.m. Thursday, but after that the wall will be open around the clock.

The Devil Dog Detachment of the Marine Corps League is handling most of the security duty, but its commandant, Richard Clark, said more volunteers are needed for the security detail. Local 686 of the United Auto Workers already has stepped up with volunteers from its membership to handle security on Saturday, but help is needed on other days.

Clark said volunteers should call him at 930-8611.

Because of the potential for congestion, the town is operating a shuttle bus to take visitors to Town Hall during what are expected to be the busiest times. The buses will leave from the Big Lots Plaza on South Transit Road, about one-half mile from Town Hall.

The bus will run in 15-minute intervals from 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, Saturday and next Sunday.

Those times coincide with some of the ceremonial events at the wall. Friday has been dubbed Law Enforcement, Firefighters and First Responders Day, with a program beginning at 10 a.m.

Saturday is Military Service and Civic Day, with another 10 a.m. program. Next Sunday is Flag Day, and Lockport Elks Lodge 41 will hold a ceremony at the wall at 11 a.m.

Councilman Paul W. Siejak came up with the idea of bringing the traveling wall to Lockport. Siejak is not a veteran, although his son is in the Navy.

In February 2014, Siejak was surfing the Internet when he read that President Obama had issued a proclamation in 2012 asking local governments to hold events from 2014 through 2025 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

Although there had been military personnel in South Vietnam since the 1950s, the date usually considered the start of the war is 1964, the year in which Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that allowed President Lyndon B. Johnson to retaliate for an alleged attack on a U.S. Navy ship by the Communist North Vietnamese. A rapid escalation of U.S. combat troops followed, soon topping the half-million mark.

Although a peace agreement was signed in January 1973 in Paris, the war continued until April 1975, when Saigon fell to the Communists and American military and civilian personnel fled in helicopters, soon followed by tens of thousands of South Vietnamese in boats.

Siejak said the last local appearance of the traveling wall was in 2001 at Niagara County Community College. He said it was not put out front on campus but was placed behind the library, and events connected to it were few and muted.

Since late 2001, the U.S. wars against Muslim terrorists have been generating plenty of new veterans. “Veterans nowadays seem to be more of a primary focus, and rightfully so,” he said. “Now it seems like our Vietnam veterans are starting to get the recognition they truly deserve. They didn’t get the recognition veterans get today.”

Siejak then read up about the Vietnam Memorial and the traveling wall. “To try to get the wall here in 2014 was not very feasible. You’ve got to book this thing a year in advance. So I said, 2015 will probably be a better time,” he said. “I was able to get the prime weekend I preferred, which was Flag Day.”

The town paid $7,500 to rent the wall, and it’s expected to incur about as much in expenses related to the visit.

The wall panels are scheduled to arrive at The Chapel at CrossPoint, off Millersport Highway in Amherst, at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Clark said motorcyclists who want to take part in the escort should register in the parking lot at The Chapel’s APEX Building, 2435 Hopkins Road, starting at that hour. Lockport-area motorcyclists are invited to gather at Town Hall at 8 a.m. and ride to The Chapel.

The escort will leave The Chapel at 10:30 and accompany the truck carrying the wall panels to Town Hall, where the wall will be assembled in time for the opening ceremony at 5 p.m. Thursday.

The escort is being organized in part by Hogs and Heroes, a group of military veterans and motorcycle enthusiasts. Other cycle clubs also have become involved.

“They have members coming in from Ohio and Massachusetts,” Siejak said. “This is turning into a regional thing instead of a town event.”

Although there are plenty of ceremonies connected with the wall’s visit, it’s open around the clock for a good reason.

Clark said, “You could have it as a dog-and-pony show, and we don’t want that. A lot of guys don’t have the opportunity to go to the wall in Washington. This is the greatest opportunity for them. A lot of the vets don’t like the show and pomp-ness of it. Some of those guys will come in the middle of the night and spend their time at the wall without that fanfare.”

Thursday’s opening ceremony will feature the raising of a POW-MIA flag at Town Hall by two town councilmen, Mark C. Crocker and Thomas J. Keough, both Air Force retirees. County Clerk Wayne F. Jagow, who is also a Lutheran minister, will give the invocation, and Joseph Baschnagel of Cambria, a bagpipe specialist, will play “Amazing Grace.”

Town Supervisor Marc R. Smith and Lockport Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey will speak briefly and lay memorial wreaths, along with Blanche Lucas, a woman whose husband was killed in Vietnam, and Melody Burow-Regent and the Niagara Falls chapter and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The keynote speaker Thursday will be former Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein, an Army veteran who served a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1966.

The police-oriented program at 10 a.m. will include a keynote speech by Sheriff James R. Voutour, and a wreath-laying by town Fire Officer Brian M. Belson and the chiefs of the five volunteer fire companies that serve the Town of Lockport.

Saturday’s 10 a.m. program will feature a flyover by units of the 914th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard, based in Niagara Falls. State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, will speak along with retired Air Force Col. William Bryndle, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Proclamations will by offered by Ortt, along with Rep. Chris Collins and Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, R-Clarence, and County Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield.

During Saturday’s event, the names of the 79 Niagara County residents on the wall will be read, along with the ringing of a bell for each. There will be rifle salutes by the Devil Dogs Thursday and Saturday.

Rochester singer Danny Barnes will sing patriotic songs at the Thursday and Friday ceremonies. The national anthem will be sung by Jackie Davis of Lockport Thursday and Saturday, and by Peter P. Robinson of Lockport, a state court security officer, on Friday.

The Flag Day ceremony will feature patriotic music by the Lockport Community Band, with a color guard by B. Leo Dolan American Legion Post 410 of Lockport, and a Devil Dog honor guard. The Washington Hunt Children’s Chorus, directed by Angela Sandy, will sing, and members of Boy Scout Troop 82 will present the history of the U.S. flag.

Clark, who served in the Marines in the first Gulf War in 1991, said about 12 of the Lockport Devil Dogs, a group of former Marines, are Vietnam veterans.

“We’re getting back to those guys who didn’t get anything. This is a great honor for me, but those guys got nothing when they came back home. When I served and got back from Kuwait, people treated us a lot better than what these guys got,” Clark said.

The support of local veterans and the significance of the wall’s appearance isn’t lost on the organizers. “It sends chills down my back, when you think about it,” Siejak said.

“It’s an awesome thing coming in,” Clark said. “It’s all about the guys who are on that wall.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com