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Memorial Day vigil honors Vietnam Vets

  • Vietnam Vets honor POW-MIAs
  • Rep. Joe Pitts addresses constituency
  • “Eternal” Flame unlit on Memorial Day

One by one, as a bell tolled a single chime and the words “Absent, not forgotten” were spoken by people in the viewing stands, Vietnam veterans carried thirty-three empty chairs draped in the black and white POW-MIA logo, carrying the names of Tennessee soldiers still missing from the Vietnam War, to “center stage” and saluted.

To the side, another veteran lit a candle for each name called. Gery Ezell read the roster of the missing. Reverend Elijah Oliver gave the benediction for this vigil.

Dozens of Vietnam veterans and their families gathered in Public Square Sunday evening to honor their fallen comrades, Tennessee’s 33 POWs and MIAs of the Vietnam War. The event was sponsored by Chapter 396 of the Vietnam Veteran’s of America, who launched this annual service in 1989 when the fate of forty-three Tennessee soldier serving in Vietnam did not return. In the intervening years, 10 soldiers have been returned, the most recent in 2005.

State Representative Joe Pitts was the speaker for the event, noting not only those who have fought in past wars but those who currently serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They should be honored,” he said. Senator Rosalind Kurita and James Patterson of the State Veteran’s Service were also present for this solemn ceremony. Neither the mayor nor any city councilors attended.

The Wester family opened the service with three songs: our National Anthem, God Bless America and America the Beautiful.The Montgomery County JROTC posted the colors and a single chair was placed close to the speakers, symbolizing those who could not be there.

Members of the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club, the Legacy Veterans Motorcycle Club, and the 2nd Brigade Motorcycle Club, turned out in large numbers for the vigil, lining the bikes in precise rows not unlike parade rank. As each of the clubs’ members carried their soldier’s chair to the front line, they paused to stand at attention and salute. For so many of us who have lost loved ones to Vietnam or other conflicts, it was a poignant moment.

The bikers, dressed in jeans, many wearing sunglasses and sporting beards, wearing vests emblazed with their club logos, were also symbolic of an era of protest, of soldiers honoring their pledge to fight for the United States even as protests over the war erupted stateside. They stood together, unified, in solidarity with the fallen friends.

The ceremony has been expanded to honor every American who has served their country in the military, said Maryanna Christy. Christy and several audience members noted that at the time the flag was raised to begin this event, the city hall doors began opening and closing, and didn’t stop until the ceremony ended.

Though inspirational and moving, there was one “sore spot” noted by virtually all who attended. Once again, the city’s Pillar of Fire/Pillar of Clouds, designed as a perpetual tribute to America’s soldiers, was unlit. The veterans in attendance were “not happy” with that omission. Clarksville Online has documented the fact that this is the second Memorial Day that flame has been out. It was also out on Veteran’s Day.

“I was at the original installation [of this monument]. At that time the City of Clarksville said the flame would burn 365 days a year. The facts is, it burns occasionally. It is almost never lit when there are ceremonies honoring veterans.” — Maryanna Christy

Christy said is the unlit flame is a slap in the face of every veteran

Vietnam Veteran David Nemirow called the omission “an embarrassment. The flame should NEVER be out.”

In a second emotional and unpatriotic hit, a number of American flags at McGregor Park were in disarray, partially torn away and hanging loose in the wind. One veteran said that if the city puts up these flags, they have a “responsibility” to maintain them. “Otherwise, why bother to put them up.”

Given that Clarksville is home to Fort Campbell, which has hundreds of its troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, these omissions have hit doubly hard and triggered significant dissatisfaction among attendees, who see the unlit flame and the dangling flags as “unpatriotic” and “irreverent.”

The city’s omissions were a complete contrast to the meticulously planned and beautifully managed ceremony sponsored by the veterans themselves.

This highly visible flag at Riverside and Commerce remain partially untethered as the Memorial Day weekend unfurls.

Vigil and Flag photos by Bill Larson

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