Published August 22, 2019
By MAUREEN DOHERTY
NORTH READING — “Welcome home” and “thank you for your service” were phrases uttered frequently and with sincerity throughout the five-plus days that The Wall That Heals occupied the meadow at Ipswich River Park.
From the time the three-quarter replica of the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Washington, D.C. arrived at the park last Tuesday afternoon until it was disassembled on Sunday afternoon, its presence transformed more than just the physical space it occupied. It gave a voice to all those who have remained silent about their service for decades. Veterans opened up about their experiences with those too young to remember or who weren’t even alive during the Vietnam era which spanned from 1959 to 1975. Family members who lost sons, brothers, fathers and husbands could grieve with the buddies of their loved ones.
Open 24/7, it was even more stunning at night, with its slick black surface illuminated to reflect back the images of those who gazed upon the more than 58,000 names in search of a comrade, a loved one, or a friend who will never be forgotten. Name rubbings brought forth a concrete remembrance of these veterans as if they themselves were signing their autograph. Flowers, poems, memorial cards, tiny flags, funny stories and even a few cans of Dr Pepper were left in tribute, inviting visitors to learn about the strangers on the wall while learning to empathize with them for the loss that still grieves them to this day.
Friday night’s Welcome Home tribute was particularly poignant from start to finish, led by Master of Ceremonies and Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto who was kept busy introducing a litany of speakers during the 90 minute event. Throughout the weekend’s four special presentations, all with different themes, he shared emcee duties with Veterans’ Services Director Susan Magner, who was the driving force in bringing this program to fruition for the benefit of veterans throughout the region, not just in North Reading.
Opening with the Presentation of the Colors by color guards from the Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air National Guard and Air Force, they formed quite a patriotic backdrop for Ayla Brown to sing the Star-Spangled Banner on a sun-drenched evening. She was followed with an invocation offered by Bishop Mark O’Connell, pastor of St. Theresa’s Church.
Select Board member Rich Wallner was the first of five guest speakers. He set the stage with an overview of life in the USA 50 years ago during a divisive war, with battle lines drawn both at home and abroad, and pointed out the irony that Woodstock took place 50 years ago to the day of this event at a time when veterans returning home were note given a welcome home parade.
“There was no acknowledgement that these surviving vets had just buried 58,000 of their closest friends. There was not even an acknowledgement that these survivors might be feeling tremendous guilt just for being alive and ‘safe’ at home,” Wallner said.
This night and this event had given everyone a chance to “rewrite the past,” he said. “But now, 50 years later, this wonderful exhibit — the healing wall — is intended to allow us to re-welcome home those who served — and perished — in a divisive war, with open hearts and minds in an honorable way that was just not available 50 years ago.”
Next to speak was state Rep. Brad Jones, who said it was a “profound honor to join with the North Reading community for this special welcome home ceremony honoring our Vietnam veterans and their fallen brothers and sisters.”
Each of the 58,276 names of the service men and women on the wall “represent stories of American heroes, some are short, some are long; all are important, and all are heroes,” Jones said.
“One of those stories is about the father of a fellow North Reading Class of 1983 graduate. His name is on panel E10, Line 50. My classmate Keith never knew his father, but his father had such a profound effect on Keith that in our high school yearbook he wrote, and I quote: ‘Most of all to a man who held my absolute respect and love. To a man I never knew. My father.’ Keith’s father died in August 1966 never knowing his son. There are over 58,000 other stories like that one on ‘The Wall.’ Whether they were drafted or volunteered, everyone whose name appears on the wall served our country and paid the ultimate sacrifice, and we must never forget,” he said.
The next guest speaker was Richard Stratton, of North Reading, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam war for 13 months, from 1965 to 1966, and who is a member of a Gold Star family — those who lost a family member in war.
Stratton spoke poignantly of what it meant to be a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, serving in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines and 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. Although he was fortunate to return home “without being wounded” in spite of being involved “in many conflicts and operations,” his foster brother, L/Cpl James Vincent Taurisano of Everett, who he regarded as his brother, was killed in action.
The pair had entered the Marines together and had served together for several months, but partway through their service they were separated when Stratton was sent to another unit. It was during that separation with his foster brother was killed in action due to a concussion caused by a land mine. His parents had waited more than a month to tell him because they did not want to upset him as he still has several more months remaining on his tour.
Stratton recalled how surreal it was when he was finally sent home. One day he was in combat, carrying firearms and the next day he had arrived by commercial jet to LA airport without any preparation for that transition.
“It astounded me at the time that the day before I had been carrying a rifle and gear, and just two days before that I had come off an operation. And here I was standing in Hollywood,” he said. “I couldn’t come home right away. I called my parents and said ‘I had to decompress. I’ll be home in a few days.’”
“I took off the uniform and did not put it on again because I wanted to put the Vietnam War behind me. Not that I wasn’t proud of being a Marine or being a veteran of Vietnam; I still was a veteran in my heart and I knew that I had served,” Stratton said. Choking up a bit, he explained, “It is tough to do this because it brings back memories.”
He felt fortunate that he was greeted by his family at Logan Airport when he returned home, but he also recalled that he had not appreciated at the time that his parents had wanted to see him get off that plane wearing his dress blues. He had one more year left to serve, though, and he noted that he made it up to them by arriving home that last time “in my dress blues. I paid my tribute back to them.”
Stratton explained that his mother had been a foster parent from the time he was 6 years old until he entered the Marines with Taurisano. “My mother took in children from the Home for Littler Wanderers in Jamaica Plain. Jimmy came to us at 13.”
“We went in on the buddy plan. We went to boot camp together; we went out to California together to train and we went to Vietnam together, arriving in August of 1965,” he said. Eventually Stratton was transferred to Southern Vietnam.
In January of 1966, Taurisano, who spoke Vietnamese and would sometimes work as an interpreter, went out on patrol. “There were three Marines in front of him. The third one, who was on point, stepped on a mine, and he was killed by concussion. He lasted two days,” Stratton said.
There is a square in Everett, his home city, dedicated to him. After reading a poem Taurisano had written entitled “Christmas in Vietnam 1965,” Stratton ended by saying: “Rest in peace Jim, I will never forget you.”
Secretary Francisco Urena of the Department of Veterans’ Services and a Purple Heart recipient from his time in the Mideast, and CCMSgt. Michelle O’Keefe, the first woman to serve as Command Chief of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, also paid tribute to the many Vietnam veterans present. Both noted the contrast they have experienced during their service where they were feted to parades, yellow ribbons and someone always willing to buy them a coffee in thanks for their service. O’Keefe’s father is a Vietnam veteran and her hero, she said.
Each Vietnam veteran was then called forward to receive a commemorative welcome home pin and over 55 were so honored with applause and photographs and small gifts presented by the Veterans’ Services Department.
Several dozen Gold Star families and In Memory families were also honored to receive a rose and commemorative card in memory of their loved ones. The In Memory program honors those families whose loved ones were Vietnam veterans who died of service-related illness or injury.
Two sisters of Spec. 4th Class Daniel D. Callahan, Georgia Callahan of North Reading and Marge (Callahan) Doyle of Wilmington, were honored as Gold Star family members. Their baby brother was the town’s third and final son to be killed in action in Vietnam in February of 1968. He was 20 years old and would have just turned 72 last month.
The ceremony concluded with a volley by the North Reading Minit and Militia and the playing of Taps.