‘They are all brothers and sisters’
Mario Marquez, director of the American Legion National Security Division, and American Legion National Vice Commander Paul Kennedy participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day, May 29. Photo by Sarah Silbiger

‘They are all brothers and sisters’

American Legion National Vice Commander Paul M. Kennedy, a member of Post 80 in Pittsburgh, placed a wreath at the Vietnam Wall during the annual Memorial Day observance. He then turned and reached out to some of the 58,000-plus names etched on the wall.

“There must be 200 people up here that I knew,” said Kennedy, who served from 1968 to 2008, retiring from the Army as a chief warrant officer. “Whether I knew them or not, they are all brothers and sisters.”

Kennedy has been a Legion member for 47 years.

“This was the highlight of my whole American Legion career, to represent the largest veterans organization, to go to the wall where I have quite a few of my friends on the wall, this was everything,” he said. “I won’t forget this. It was a great experience.”

His military tenure corresponds to a dramatic shift in the public perception of servicemembers. “There is quite the difference. People now realize what really went on there (Vietnam) and what we originally got blamed for isn’t really what happened.”

Even today, the healing continues for many Vietnam veterans. That’s why Kennedy handed out American Legion Be the One information, letting veterans know about the resources available as part of the initiative to reduce veteran suicide.

“Be the One is the greatest program The American Legion has come up with for all veterans and their families, I’ve talked with a lot of families that are being helped by Be the One,” he said. “I’ve never hugged so many people before today.”

It was a ray of hope in an otherwise dreary day in the nation’s capital. At one point, a pause in the rain showers ushered in a profound moment. Upon drying, the names began to become visible once again, signifying the deep meaning of Memorial Day to the families of those 58,000 servicemembers.

Before the wreaths were laid, several speakers shared their memories.

Among them was Susan Kramer O’Neill, who served as an Army nurse during the Vietnam War. Speaking on behalf of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, O’Neill described falling in love with the wall and finding solace in touching the names.

“When you’re a nurse, you don’t see a glorious war, you see the results of the war,” she said. “Because I was an operating room nurse, I don’t know any of the names on the wall. We didn’t track the names. We never heard them in most cases. And if we did, we forgot them because the next case was coming in.”

Retired Air Force Col. Dennis “Bud” Traynor received the Air Force Cross for his heroic efforts to save 176 lives April 4, 1975, during the first flight of “Operation Babylift.” The operation aimed to rescue orphaned babies and infants from Vietnam. After climbing to 23,000 feet, the rear cargo door of Traynor’s C5 Galaxy broke off, forcing him to crash land in a rice paddy field. Among the 138 killed in the crash were 11 of his crew, whose names are inscribed on the wall.

“Few wanted to go to war,” he said. “Some did it for patriotism, some did it for love of country. Some gave all, and I salute them and their families.”

Details of Traynor’s heroic landing of the C5 are detailed here.