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Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall makes stop in Oak Island 

by Oak Island Town Clerk Lisa Stites

When Oak Island resident Gary Anderson helped escort the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall last year as part of the Patriot Guard Riders group, he knew he wanted to bring it to Oak Island someday.

That day came over the 4th of July holiday weekend, as the wall made a stop on Oak Island July 2-6. He and fellow organizer Bob Racine said an estimated 16,000 people visited the wall during those few days.

“We seem to have reached more people than we thought we would,” Racine said. Anderson agreed. “I just felt that there were so many people in Brunswick County who can’t get to Washington D.C., and I wanted to bring the wall to them,” he said.

Once the idea began to take hold, Anderson enlisted the help of Racine, also an Oak Island resident and founder of Warrior Ride, a non-profit organization dedicated to rehabilitating wounded soldiers. Along with a committee of a dozen or so volunteers, the two solicited funds from area businesses and individuals to help cover the expense of bringing the wall to town. They also worked with the Town of Oak Island, which provided space on soccer fields, a donation and assistance from employees for traffic control, security, etc. And they worked with Wall Manager Doc Russo on the logistics for bringing it to Oak Island.

The wall is a 3/5 replica of the Memorial in Washington D.C. and spans almost 300 feet – one football field – from end to end. There are more than 58,000 names etched on it, 1,609 of those from North Carolina and roughly two dozen from Brunswick County.

Racine said he knew local families were planning on researching their relatives’ stories once they recognized names on the wall. The educational component is one of the reasons Anderson and Racine wanted to bring the memorial to Oak Island.

While asking for support in town, Anderson and Racine said they met people who didn’t even know where Vietnam is or anything about the war fought there. It’s important, Racine said, for the younger generations to learn this part of the country’s history.

"They’re our future," he said.

When the Wall was brought into town July 2, it came escorted by the Patriot Guard Riders on 145 motorcycles. As they rode across the Swains Cut Bridge and along the main thoroughfare, they were welcomed by residents and visitors lining the street waving flags and cheering them on as they rode past. Racine said one woman held a picture of her father and some Girl Scouts sang a song. Anderson said it was an awesome show of support from the community.

Opening and closing ceremonies, flyovers, a parachute flag drop and other scheduled events made the experience of hosting the memorial a memorable one for the citizens of Oak Island.

Anderson served 21 years in the U.S. Navy beginning in 1962; he was a Chief Data Processing Technician. Racine was a U.S. Marine for more than 12 years beginning in 1961; he then transferred his service to the U.S. Army and became one of the original members of Delta Force. Both know the importance of recognizing veterans for their service.

One night during the wall’s stop on Oak Island, Racine said he came upon three Marines lying in the grass crying. He encouraged them to go inside a tent and speak to volunteers, who stayed at the memorial around the clock.

"You had to sit and listen and not disrupt," he said of the Marines and 

others who visited. "They were trying to get something out and find closure or whatever you want to call it. They were making noises with their lips but it was their hearts talking," he said.

Racine tried to visit the memorial in the nation’s capital three times, but said he could never quite make himself approach it. He said he figured he would have to help set it up if it came to Oak Island and he probably couldn’t get any closer physically than that.

Having it in his hometown did make it easier. He actually carried a small piece of it, unknowingly, during the setup. When he realized what he had done, he knew that he could then, finally, spend time in front of the wall.

Racine also said bringing the wall to Oak Island was a way that he and Warrior Ride could give something back to the community that so often supports them.

"What better gift could we give our town than to bring the wall, honor everyone who served, and let people see that Oak Island is a community that cares for our service members," Racine said.