ORLANDO – Standing before a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Joseph William Kittinger II said the memorial at Lake Eola Park’s northeast corner had a very important purpose for the people who, like himself, had served in the war in Vietnam.
“This wall represents 58,000 American soldiers, men and woman, who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Kittinger said. “It also represents 58,000 mothers, 58,000 families, who cried for their soldier.”
During a ceremony on Saturday morning honoring The Wall that Heals, a traveling half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, Kittinger said those soldiers deserved to be remembered for their great service during that controversial war.
“They devoted their life to our country,” he said.
Kittinger also touched on another controversy from that decade. Kittinger is a former Command Pilot and career military officer in the United States Air Force. The native of Tampa was in Orlando last weekend to take part in the ceremony unveiling the The Wall that Heals.
While serving as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, he got shot down and spent 11 months in a North Vietnamese prison. Kittinger was shot down on May 11, 1972, just before the end of his third tour of duty. Kittinger and his Weapons Systems Officer, 1st Lieutenant William J. Reich, were captured and spent 11 months as prisoners of war in the “Hanoi Hilton” prison. He was put through rope torture soon after he got there.
“I stayed in the Hanoi Hilton in a dungeon,” he said. “It was not a nice hotel. The food was awful, and so was the room service.”
Kittinger and Reich were released to American hands on March 28, 1973. He recalled the night he heard bombs going off near the prison, and how he cheered, thinking finally the Americans had come to liberate him.
And he also recalled something else: actress and anti-war activist Jane Fonda, and her “Hanoi Jane” controversy.
Fonda, the Academy Award-winning actress of movies like “Klute” and “Coming Home,” visited Hanoi in July 1972, where she was photographed seated on an anti-aircraft battery. Fonda also made ten radio broadcasts, denouncing American political and military leaders as “war criminals.” She also visited American POWs, and in 1973 told The New York Times “I’m quite sure that there were incidents of torture … but the pilots who were saying it was the policy of the Vietnamese and that it was systematic, I believe that’s a lie.”
On Saturday, Kittinger had his own thoughts about Fonda.
“Jane Fonda is a traitor to our country,” he said. “She gave aid and comfort to our enemies.”
Most tragically, he said, Fonda was never criminally charged for doing that.
“It’s sad that she was never tried for treason,” Kittinger said. “But you know what? There is no statute of limitations on treason, and I keep hoping that someone files charges against her.”
The fact that the war in Vietnam remains very controversial and politically divisive today was touched on by several speakers during the ceremony, including Kittinger and Jan Scruggs, the founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, who is now building an education center under it in honor of the soldiers who served and died in that war. Scruggs, who was in Orlando for the ceremony, noted “It was a very bitterly divisive time, our involvement in Southeast Asia.”
Kittinger agreed, and blamed that on America’s political leaders, not the troops who fought the war.
“It was sad that the soldiers who gave their lives did it for their country,” he said. “It wasn’t our soldiers who lost that war, it was the politicians. We had what we believed was a great mission, but once again, it was our politicians who lost the war.”
He worried aloud whether the Obama administration would be making the same mistake by ending the war in Afghanistan.
“I have a feeling that the Taliban will be back a week after we leave,” Kittinger said.
Not everyone touched on politics during the event. Paul Hay, chairman of Orlando’s Veterans Advisory Council, said his members worked hard to bring this event to the city, and he thanked Mayor Buddy Dyer – who was at the ceremony – for his ongoing support.
“When it comes time for veterans to do something, he never turns me down,” Hay said.
The ceremony was called “The Wall that Heals: Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Call for Photos,” a national campaign to locate photos of the 58,272 service members memorialized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, so the education center can include their photos and a narrative about them. Scruggs said at least 100 people from Orlando died in Vietnam.
During Monday’s City Council meeting, Dyer said it had been “a very moving tribute,” and said the half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial found the ideal location at Lake Eola.
“It was almost like it was made for that spot in the park,” Dyer said.
Commissioner Tony Ortiz, who also attended the ceremony, agreed.
“They did a great job putting that together,” he said. “That little sample of the wall looks great. Maybe we can come up with something like that to go there (permanently), because it just fits so right.”
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The traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is always touching to see. It was too bad that there was so little notice about it’s arrival and presence in our area. By and far the most comments were about no public awareness. It was also a shame that there was no mention about Cpl. Larry Smedley, the Medal of Honor recipient (posthumous) who died in Vietnam and was from Orlando.
There is a big project push to get pictures for every name that is on the wall. It allows a face to be associated. Too many times warriors knew each other by nicknames instead of their real names. Ghosts may be put to rest when there are names instead of nicknames. And the project may allow stories to be share with families – the fun times and tales, the scary times, the final moments, the thanks. Seven pictures got scanned in while the Wall was in Orlando. Seven new pictures of those who served and paid the ultimate price. Thank you for serving, warriors. You won’t be forgotten.