Veterans and their family members do not have to travel far to pay their respects to those who served in one of the United States’s most controversial wars. Outshining the “prison city” reputation of Huntsville, the H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum pr
ovides a new reason to head to East Texas, with an 80 percent-scale replica of the iconic Washington, D.C. Vietnam Memorial Wall.
It has been a long journey, according to Kenneth Lee, H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum Board President, and Vietnam War veteran. It has been exactly two years; however, the museum and its 1,500 guests finally celebrated the wall’s unveiling earlier this year. “It was unbelievable; I didn’t think we were going to be able to complete it,” Lee said.
Once a memorial that traveled the nation, the wall originally made its way to Huntsville in 2009 before the museum had broken ground—drawing around 10,000 visitors in four nights. At the time, Lee never thought it would become a permanent fixture at the museum. However, as the wall was set for retirement in 2020, the museum was presented with an offer they could not refuse. Funded entirely by Walker County, the city of Huntsville, and generous donors, the wall is one of a few of its kind, serving as an awe-inspiring tribute to the more than 58,000 American soldiers who died in the line of duty.
Following his service in Vietnam as part of the first unit to make a beach landing since the Korean War and the first offensive battle in Vietnam, Lee frequently visited the wall in Washington, D.C. throughout his career with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). However, now that he is settled in Texas, having it so close to home is a comfort.
“I have probably 30 Marines on the wall. One of them was in my platoon and received the Medal of Honor because he was killed in Vietnam at the age of 19, so to see it every day really means a lot to me,” Lee said.
American involvement in the Vietnam War began in the 1950s as an attempt to aid South Vietnam in their defense against communist North Vietnam and thwart the spread of communism across the Asian continent. The U.S. involvement amassed approximately 2.7 million American men and women in its service through volunteer enlistment and the first implemented draft since World War II. However, high casualties among American soldiers and Vietnam civilians rendered poor public perception and the eventual exit of the United States from direct involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973.
The museum’s wall stands as an 80 percent replica of the original wall in Washington, D.C., and spans 370 feet in length, reaching its peak at eight feet and tapering down to four feet. Six additional information panels stand apart from the wall, depicting the war’s history and honoring those whose donations made the wall’s creation possible.
“Looking at 58,000 names on a wall is different from looking at a national cemetery full of headstones because basically you just see the headstones and not the individual names,” said Billy Joe Shotwell, H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum volunteer and Vietnam War veteran. “But on the wall, you see these names, and it makes it personal. Even if you’re just a stranger who happened to stop at the museum, looking at 58,000 names on the wall and seeing them from one end to the other is quite a moving experience.”
Each day, Shotwell walks the length of the wall, taking in the 58,000-plus names, ten of whom he grew up with as schoolmates in Huntsville, and remembering the hundreds more whom he helped bring home to their families.
The war ended nearly 50 years ago, but to Vietnam veterans like Shotwell, it seems like it was only yesterday that they were just a bunch of kids traversing the jungles in a foreign land, thousands of miles from home. “While we were fighting the war, there was no vision that there would ever be a wall somewhere someday; that was just never thought of,” Shotwell said.
At 23 years old, Shotwell was the oldest in his company when he served in Vietnam in 1971 as a Huey helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.“When I first got to Vietnam, my main worry was what was going to be my reaction when I saw my first dead U.S. soldier,” he said. “I knew that day was going to roll around because everything moved by air, which meant that I moved lots of dead and wounded soldiers in my helicopter.”
His fear proved unfounded when he moved his first dead soldier and one that was badly wounded two months into his service and did not have a reaction, already acclimated to the horrors of the war. It was a 20-minute flight back to what they knew as an evacuation hospital where the wounded were carried in for treatment, and the deceased were offloaded onto the landing pad right beside his helicopter’s door.
“That day, I had just those two on board,” Shotwell said. “I looked at the one who had been killed, and I thought that I wanted to remember them that way. It would be in the course of a year that I must have carried scores and scores of dead and wounded, so I always made a point to take a mental note because, at this point, I knew before their families knew what had happened.”
He was the first step in bringing them home to their families. Realizing the connection he shared with hundreds of those names and their family members that he will never know, Shotwell eventually found comfort in the wall, returning each day as though visiting a friend.
“That’s what I see when I go to the wall: I can look back and see those guys that I hauled in,” Shotwell said; “They’re on the wall, and I did something good for them. It’s quite an honor to know that I did it.”
As one of the nation’s most-visited memorial on the National Mall in Washington, the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall typically draws in over five million visitors each year since its completion in 1982. However, it is not an easy journey for everyone. As Shotwell put it, Vietnam veterans are only getting older, and the trip to Washington is simply not feasible for all.
“There are a huge number of people that will never get to Washington, D.C. to see that wall, but they can come to this one and have the same reaction. It’s a peaceful, calm setting here, so I would urge anybody that has any interest if they want to see the Vietnam Wall, this is the place that they ought to come,” Shotwell said.
Located midway between Dallas and Houston, the wall draws in road trippers and curious passersby alike, though word has spread to attract visitors worldwide.
“It means so much to the veterans that couldn’t afford to go to Washington,” Lee said. “You can tell by the demeanor of the people what all it means to them. Some of the guys are standing out there for a long time, and the same with the families—especially the ones that lost a family member in Vietnam that probably have no idea what all the veterans went through.”
The H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is free and open to the public 24/7, with lighting provided for those looking to avoid the crowds on a more private late-night visit.