Members of the Olney VFW recently shared the story of bringing home a national treasure in honor of Vietnam War veterans.
Member Bill Ross served in the U.S. Army Infantry Division in Vietnam from 1967-1968.
Member Ron Merritt served as an Army Medic in the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the Vietnam War from 1969-1970.
Merritt said, “We’ve never really been honored. Indirectly, we consider ourselves the lost veterans. The Korean veterans had the same thing to go through also.”
The Vietnam War remains one of the most controversial conflicts in world history. Its veterans report having grown up in a culture which traditionally revered service men and women. The contempt of civilians from their own country, and the lack of post-war support services was unexpected and disillusioning for returned Vietnam War veterans.
On March 29, 2012, former President Barack Obama proclaimed March 29, 2012, as Vietnam Veterans Day.
The proclamation stated:
"The Vietnam War is a story of service members of different backgrounds, colors, and creeds who came together to complete a daunting mission. It is a story of Americans from every corner of our Nation who left the warmth of family to serve the country they loved.”
“It is a story of patriots who braved the line of fire, who cast themselves into harm's way to save a friend, who fought hour after hour, day after day to preserve the liberties we hold dear. From Ia Drang to Hue, they won every major battle of the war and upheld the highest traditions of our Armed Forces."
Last year, President Trump signed The Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017, officially designating March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
Ross and Merritt are honored to have brought home a piece of national history in remembrance of the sacrifices made by themselves and fellow Vietnam veterans. How the national treasure came to southern Illinois is a story of uncanny coincidence.
Ross said, “In 1989, Warner Bros. made movie, In Country, about brothers serving in Vietnam. One brother was killed, one came home with PTSD.”
The movie was based on the book, In Country, written by Bobbi Ann Mason from Mayfield, Kentucky.
Ross reported that Warner Bros. came to Riedland, Kentucky (a suburb of Paducah) to film the movie, which brought movie stars Bruce Willis and Demi Moore to the small town.
Ross said, “My sister and brother-in-law had a house in subdivision nearby. While filming, they had food trucks set up in Reidland at a dead-end road. Bruce Willis and Demi Moore rode motorcycles down to the food truck and got to know my family … During their conversations, it came out that I had served in Vietnam.”
Ross reported that among Warner Bros. movie props were numerous panels of exact replicas of the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
“After the movie was filmed, Warner Bros. donated the panels to Paducah Plate Glass. They were to be distributed to Veterans’ organizations to put on display for the public to see,” Ross said.
Ross’s sister contacted him explaining that the Paducah-based business had asked if he would be interested in bringing a panel back to his southern Illinois community.
Ross and Merritt agreed that getting the treasure to Illinois was a fine idea. The panel has been on display at the Olney V.F.W. since the 1990s.
Ross said, “The irony is over 58,000 names are on 140 panels of this. The panel is W8, west side, 8th panel. Went down and looked at it and discovered that one of the guys from Illinois, Michael J. Knox was on the panel. He was the first guy from Olney, to be killed in Vietnam, as far as we know. His father was doctor Lawrence Knox from Olney.”
The veterans reported that members of the Knox family verified that that panel at the Olney V.F.W. is an exact replica of the wall in Washington D.C.
It is unknown if the panel includes names of other Vietnam War veterans from southern Illinois. However, it is possible. Members of the V.F.W. encourage families of veterans to come examine the panel to find out for themselves.
Merritt said, “We do not know if there are other names of veterans from other nearby locations. There are hundreds of names on it … We were very fortunate to get the panel and very shocked that it had someone from the area.”
The display is open to the public at the V.F.W located at 205 N Walnut St. in Olney, IL.