There are 58,318 names etched in the black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And photos of nearly 5,000 of those servicemembers are still needed to complete the Wall of Faces project, which is an effort begun in 2009 by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to commemorate this year’s 35th anniversary of the memorial. The Wall of Faces is an online database that features a photo of the servicemember with a brief biography.
American Legion Past Department of New York Auxiliary President Sue Britton, and the entire New York Legion Family, are doing their part to find those missing in their respective state.
“I think that every one of these veterans need to be recognized, and it’s become a communitywide service project here in New York to locate the photos,” said Britton, a member of Unit 589 in Rensselaerville, N.Y.
Britton heard about the Wall of Faces project during a trip to the memorial this past February while in Washington, D.C., for the Legion’s annual Washington Conference. “The whole thing seemed so sad to me that a face couldn’t be put with each of those Vietnam veterans,” she said. Upon returning home from the conference, she looked up the list of Vietnam servicemembers in her county of Albany that were on the Wall and had missing photos. There were 16.
But after investigative work and persistence by Britton and other Legion Family members, they have all been accounted for and uploaded to the Wall of Faces website.
Britton initially started the photo recovery process by looking in the phone book for those with the same last name as the Vietnam servicemember. Within two hours of making cold calls, she had made contact with three of the families. Other ways she has tracked down photos is by searching on Google, looking at obituaries for parents of the servicemembers to see if there are living siblings or other relatives, using the Coffelt database, and word of mouth.
The challenge with tracking down the photos of these servicemembers is that many were not married, did not have siblings or their parents are now deceased. When it comes to situations like this, Britton said high school yearbooks help because the photos don’t have to be of their military service. For example, Britton’s husband Donald, a Vietnam veteran and member of Legion Post 589, went to high school with one of the men whose photo was missing. He was an only child and his parents are deceased so Donald scanned an image of the fallen servicemember’s high school yearbook photo to have placed on the Wall of Faces.
Britton decided to expand her search statewide and initiated the support of the entire New York Legion Family. Her research unveiled that there were nearly 1,200 Vietnam servicemembers from New York whose names are on the Wall but are without a photo in the database. So during the Department of New York’s convention this past summer she created and inserted a flyer into the attendees' packets that called for the Legion Family to help put a face to every name. It was a call to “work together as a Legion Family and get this done for these American servicemembers who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam,” Britton said.
Because of the New York Legion Family, as of today, New York is now missing 846 photos.
“This project has been so rewarding. It means so much to these families when they find out you’re trying to post a picture of their family member to the Wall of Faces to be remembered,” Britton said. “I don’t think there’s any greater tribute than having their face there.”
There are 26 U.S. states with missing photos of their fallen Vietnam servicemembers. See a list of states here that have all photos accounted for.
While the Department of New York Legion Family continues to locate the remaining photos, Britton is challenging other departments with photos of Vietnam servicemembers missing to do the same.
“Any department can do this,” she said. “You can help make this a reality where every Vietnam servicemember is recognized.” She even created a flyer that departments can distribute to support this effort. Download the flyer here.
The Wall of Faces will be part of the future Education Center at The Wall, which will be an interactive learning facility located on the National Mall.