Vietnam Wall reconnects friends on a day of remembrance
American Legion National Vice Commander Randy Edwards and District of Columbia Commander Detashia Coleman lay a wreath during Memorial Day ceremonies at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Monday, May 27. Photo by Valerie Plesch/The American Legion

Vietnam Wall reconnects friends on a day of remembrance

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As American Legion National Vice Commander Randy Edwards stood in front of panel 65E of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he expressed joy to see the name of a friend who came home after being missing for over 40 years.

“I get to see Tommy again,” said Edwards as he looked upon the name of his high school friend, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Edward Knebel. Knebel was identified on March 13, 2009, by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency after his C-130 crashed on May 22, 1968, during a flying mission over northern Salavan Province, Laos. “It’s special because I know him, and he is one of the reasons why I joined the military.” Edwards served 38 years in the Army, both active and reserve.

It was Knebel who Edwards was thinking about as he laid a wreath alongside Department of District of Columbia Commander Detashia Coleman at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on May 27 for Memorial Day.

“This was such an honor to lay the wreath for The American Legion,” Edwards said. “I was just thinking of Tommy and him coming home after 41 years.”

Guest speakers for the Memorial Day remembrance ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial included Frederick W. Smith, founder and executive chairman of Fed/Ex Corporation, who served four years in the Marine Corps that included two tours in Vietnam; retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mike Peterson who flew 269 combat missions in Vietnam; and retired Army Maj. Gen. Donna Barbisch, a Vietnam combat nurse.

Memorial Day marked 54 years, three months and 10 days that Barbisch arrived in Vietnam to save lives as a nurse. She felt called to serve after “seeing on TV the carnage of war and the loss the United States was suffering … we need to support our men and women in uniform.” She recalled a specific day in war that she always remembers.

While stationed at the 91st Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai, Vietnam, she was in the emergency room preparing for casualties and severe wounds. “I could hear the whoop-whoop-whoop of that helicopter landing,” she said. “My heart was in my throat. We needed to save these guys. One soldier that came in was lifeless, unconscious. By giving him fluids and blood and stopping his bleeding and resuscitating him, he became conscious. He started to talk to me about where he had come from, what he was doing.”

As Barbisch was preparing the soldier for surgery, “I talked to him, held his hand while we waited. He told me of his dreams, he told me about home. I remember. He looked like my brother. He reminded me of home, something we didn’t think about most of the time while we were in Vietnam. It was too far away. It was too painful. I remember his face. I pushed that gurney back to the operating room and I said, ‘Hang in there. I’ll see you tomorrow.’”

The next morning Barbisch learned the soldier had died in surgery.  

“I have to say it was one of the darkest days I had in Vietnam because I had to recognize that all my effort wasn’t saving those lives. I am so sorry to that man, to his family, to those on the Wall here that we couldn’t save. It broke my heart. It broke my spirit. But I remember. And that’s what Memorial Day is all about … we must remember.”  

Edwards remembers Knebel and another dear friend from high school, Sid, who served in Vietnam. He was one of three Marines in his battalion to survive an ambush in Vietnam, Edwards said, that would eventually cost him his life. Sid died by suicide following the war.

“That’s why Be the One is so important to me because it’s personal,” Edwards said of The American Legion’s suicide prevention mission to save the lives of veterans. “The American Legion is changing lives and saving lives. I believe in what we’re doing.”