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Moving Opening Ceremony Kicks Off “The Wall That Heals” Visit to Bellingham

Sep 30, 2019 06:00AM ● By Pamela Johnson

Bob Botelho of Sherborn, U.S. Army Veteran, watches Mike Soter

story & photos by Jennifer Russo, Contributing Writer

The black granite Wall, engraved with the names of 58,276 soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War, stood as a solemn and silent reminder in the heart of Bellingham last month. Residents of Bellingham and nearby towns gathered together for a beautiful opening ceremony to honor veterans and pay homage to lives lost. The event was abundant with patriotism, applause, and a few tears.
The Bellingham High School band began the event with music as children marveled at the helicopter on display and well-placed battlefield cross memorials. The crowd was led in prayer and the colors were presented as men and women proudly marched along the Wall holding them high for all to see. Ayla Brown, daughter of former U.S. Senator Scott Brown, sang a heartfelt rendition of the National Anthem, followed by Patrick Pisani leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. After the colors were retired, a beautiful wreath ceremony was performed, honoring our United States military branches and remembering resident veterans who have passed on.  Then brothers Joseph and Robert Oliver sang I’m Proud to Be an American, as many in the crowd sang along.

One of the most moving ceremonies, the Missing Man Table ceremony, was conducted by Joanne Morgan of Milford, who explained that the ceremony is meant to honor those men and women who went missing in action, whose fate we might never know. The table was round, set for one, with a white tablecloth symbolizing the purity of intention that a soldier must have to fight for his/her country. The table also held a yellow ribbon of remembrance and a rose to mark the blood the soldier may have shed in sacrifice, a slice of lemon marking the possibility of a bitter fate, and salt to symbolize tears. It also had set upon it a Bible to express the comfort of faith, a candle to symbolize the light of hope that they might return and an American flag to remember that the soldiers fought for a worthy cause.

Jason King, a military veteran who was there representing Senator Ryan Fattman, called the installation of The Wall That Heals “the capstone event in Bellingham’s 300th Anniversary celebration.” He also noted some important and often misconceived facts about the Vietnam War, noting that only 25% of the soldiers were drafted, whereas 75% enlisted voluntarily, and that of those soldiers, 66% said they would serve again if asked.

State Representative Mike Soter then addressed the audience, calling for a round of applause and appreciation for Jim Hastings, who worked so hard to bring the Wall to Bellingham to honor fallen Vietnam War soldiers. Jim is a Vietnam veteran who served as a U.S. Marine. Soter said that he is grateful that the Wall can bring healing and, though he has not served in the military personally, it is a reminder to be a better American, something he tries to do each day by supporting veteran causes.  He encouraged the crowd to think of ways they can be better citizens as well.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Francisco Urena followed, letting residents know what a treat it was to see the level of patriotism that our town has and taking a moment to mention the 1,100 Massachusetts soldiers who lost their lives in Vietnam and remember the 38 who were never found. He noted that many Vietnam veterans who did come home did not come back to a welcome and how important it is for us to remember what they did for our country.

Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Henderson, Garrison Commander for the Natick Soldier Systems Center, spoke next, and there were many in the crowd who teared up as he spoke of his father, a Vietnam veteran. He spoke with undeniable love and respect for the man, and it was obvious that the apple didn’t fall far. He shared his hope that the peace and comfort that the Wall brought to them would be brought to Bellingham as well.

The ceremony closed with the powerful words of retired USMC Brigadier General Thomas Draude as he asked the audience to consider that the number of people who died in the Vietnam War was 3 times the number of Bellingham’s population. He spoke of how the Wall was made from black, mirrored granite for a reason, so that when looking at the names inscribed on it, you would also see your own face.  This is important, he said, because that fraction of an inch--God’s will—is all that is the difference between being a reflection on the wall and a name on it.
He also noted that the names engraved behind him were not alphabetical, but chronological by the date that a veteran had fallen, and that there are no ranks or ethnicities cited because it didn’t matter—they all fought as brothers and sisters. He spoke of the American spirit and quoted part of a poem by Rudyard Kipling: “In times of war and not before, God and the soldier we adore. But in times of peace and all things righted, God is forgotten and the soldier slighted.”  He quickly followed with the statement “NOT in Bellingham, thank God.”

The ceremony concluded with the crowd making their way over to the Wall to pay their respects, take photos, visit the educational truck that accompanied the Wall, and converse with each other about the impactful words spoken. Everyone seemed very proud to have the Wall hosted by our town, an honor that makes our 300th anniversary even more inspirational.
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