It is an army that still marches, though its battlefield is not a terrestrial one.
Its fight is being waged within the consciousness of the nation. The objective: Do not let them forget.
It’s a hard campaign. The enemy, you see, is always on the move. Time itself is the adversary. Sands of it have a way of burying memories in the bottom of the hourglass.
But this force of 58,307 is holding back that advance — it is a wall.
That number, of course, represents names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which pays tribute members of the U.S. Armed Forces who fought in the Southeast Asia and were killed or are listed as missing in action. Names of two Highland men are carved there, Junior Roniger and Richard Hoffmann.
In addition to the permanent monument, “The Wall” also has a scaled, mobile version. It tours the country nonstop.
The Vietnam Memorial Traveling Wall rolled through Highland last Wednesday en route to Troy, where is stood on display at Tri-Township Park over the weekend.
As it made its way across the area, The Wall was escorted by dozen of police officers and hundreds of Patriot Guard riders. They rumbled into Highland around 3:30 in the afternoon for a brief ceremony at Rinderer Park. Flags lined the route along Veterans Honor Parkway to the spot where the community awaited.
“We are so grateful for the sacrifice these men and women have made,” said the Rev. Chris Hill, pastor of Evangelical United Church of Christ in Highland, who gave an opening prayer.
Highland VFW Post 5694 commander Art Wolf said the reception last week for The Wall was much different than the ones he and other Vietnam veterans got when they returned home from war all those decades ago.
Wolf he was thankful for the “outpouring of support” Vietnam vets now receive.
“God bless you all,” he told the crowd.
Highland Mayor Joe Michaelis was of age to be drafted when the Vietnam War was being waged. However, he received a high lottery number and was never taken into the service.
At the time, Michaelis said he thought he was lucky. But, he said, he has since changed his thinking. Though he served nearly 30 years as a police officer, he wishes he, too, could have served in the military.
“I wasn’t lucky,” he said, addressing the crowd, which contained a large contingent of veterans. “Each of you, you were the lucky ones. You served this country. No one can ever take that from you.”
He also paid homage to those who did not come home.
“They gave each one of us our freedom,” Michaelis said.
Jim Hobbs, commander of American Legion Post 439 in Highland, said those who fell continue the fight for future generations of service men and women.
“That wall screams their names out,” Hobbs said.
And their names ring out as reminders to all — especially those who run the government — that “if you start a war, you finish a war,” Hobbs said. They also call on the country to take care of veterans after the war is over, he said.
Gold Star father Gary Smith of Troy, who lost his son, Senior Airman Bradley R. Smith, in Afghanistan 2010, said Vietnam veterans had supported his family “far more than any other group.”
“My hope is that we never forget these folks,” he said.
“Amen,” a voice echoed back from the crowd.
Highland Veterans Lost in Vietnam
Marine Corps Cpl. Richard A. Hoffmann became the first Highland-born fatality of the Vietnam War. He was born Oct. 9, 1946, in Highland. As a youth, he lived with his family near Lindendale Park, where his father was the caretaker.
Hoffmann was diagnosed with polio when he was 4 years old, but he went on to become a star basketball player at St. Paul High School in Highland, where he later served as an assistant coach and mentored other players. He was mentioned in the News Leader sports section almost weekly. He played accordion and had a small after his high school graduation. He also attended a computer repair school.
Hoffmann enlisted in the Marine Corps on Oct. 12, 1966. He served in Vietnam with the 1stMarine Division. He was killed on Sept. 19, 1968 in a battle at Quang Nam.
A flagpole was later placed on the northeast corner of St. Paul Elementary School in his honor.
Army Sgt. Junior Floyd Roniger was born March 1, 1946. He was the son of Gilmer and Virginia (Hammer) Ronniger. He graduated from Highland High School in 1964. After his graduation, he was employed at Granite City Steel.
Sgt. Roniger enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1966. After serving 13 months in Korea, he re-enlisted at the request of a friend.
He went to Vietnam in 1968. He was killed on Feb. 20, 1969, while in a night defensive in the Mekong Delta.
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. He also received the Bronze Star, Air Medal, Gold Conduct Medal, National Defene Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Expert Automatic Rifle Badge, Marksman Rifle Badge, Combat Infantry Badge and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and Ribbon.