On Memorial Day, about 200 people packed into the warehouse of Saunders Construction in Arrington to pay tribute to 11 Nelson County residents who died during the Vietnam War.
One by one, family members, relatives and even family friends approached a candle that sat beside a glass box engraved with the name of a solider and lit the wick in their memory. As the flame from the candle flickered, each person took a moment to share a personal anecdote or memory of the deceased.
The 11 men honored during the ceremony were more than just soldiers who died in combat. As their relatives recalled, they were brothers, role models, a “typical southern country guy,” and even a substitute bus driver.
“I remember he was a young, happy man, he loved his country and his family. When he was called to fight, he went. The memories I have of him are as a brother, not a soldier,” said Peggy Dickerson of her brother Private First Class David Banks Bryant.
The ceremony was part of the Vietnam War and Foreign Conflict Foundation’s tribute honoring local Vietnam veterans, but also honored veterans from other conflicts as well, as the event grew in size, according to VWFC Foundation Board Member and veteran Larry Saunders.
“Today, we wanted to recognize the men that were killed in Vietnam from Nelson County,” Saunders said, adding he also wanted to build the community’s awareness of the foundation and their mission.
Outside of Saunders Construction off U.S. 29, or more recently known as “Fort Saunders,” visitors from Nelson County and the surrounding area had the chance to learn about the Vietnam War by interacting with various memorabilia and vehicles in the foundation’s possession as well as listening to the stories and testimonies from one of several veterans in attendance.
The event also featured Civil War reenactors, remarks from Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath; and Del. John Avoli and culminated in a rifle salute and taps performed by members of the American Legion Post 17.
During the ceremony, the foundation also payed special tribute to a 12th person who recently died.
“I think not only Nelson but nationwide now people are supporting the armed forces more and one of the main goals for us is to educate the public on what the Vietnam war was about,” Saunders said.
Despite the various Vietnam-era equipment on display, Saunders said it was less than a third of the total number of exhibits and artifacts the foundation has. Limitations aside, Saunders said it was important for him to be able to share this story with others.
“It means a lot. It means a lot that we’re able to show a lot of the family members some of the stuff we had in Vietnam, some of the stuff we went through,” Saunders, who was a combat engineer in Vietnam War, said.
The foundation still is looking for a larger, permanent facility where they can bring their vision of a Vietnam museum to life. Saunders noted the foundation soon will open up to accept members and volunteers as well.
VWFC Foundation Vice President Bobby Cabbell, a flight engineer and crew chief who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969 during the time of the Tet Offensive, said it was important for him to honor not only Vietnam veterans who lost their lives, but to honor all those who died during foreign conflicts.
“The Korean [War] guys are fading out, the World War II guys are pretty much gone, Vietnam guys are right behind them. We are a vanishing breed,” Cabell said.
During his remarks, Deeds said Memorial Day was an important day that can ultimately unite the country during times of division.
“As everyone sitting here knows this is a somber day. A somber day to remember with reverence those people who gave their lives in the service of their country. They gave up their youth to fight for their country, to serve their country, to fight for freedom and democracy in every corner of the world. Some volunteered some were drafted, but they answered the call,” Deeds said.
Cabbell said the large turnout Monday afternoon was a reflection of the community’s eagerness to learn and backing of the foundation.
“We’re being backed, we’re not out there all alone and that’s what we felt like when we came back from Vietnam, that we were alone and that’s not the case,” Cabbell said. “[The community] want to be a part of it and we just feel like this is going to be a part of this community for a very long time.”