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Vietnam Wall honors Pickerington native
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series that profiles Eastside residents who either served in Vietnam or whose names are featured on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. A traveling version of the memorial will come to Pickerington Nov. 10-15.
Messenger photo by Lori Smith
The David Johnston Memorial Post of the American Legion is named in memory of Pickerington High School’s only casualty of the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War is close to the hearts of many of the members of the David Johnston Memorial Post 283 of the American Legion in Pickerington.
“I’d say probably the majority of our members are Vietnam-era veterans,” estimated Dave England, who served as commander of the post from 2003-08 and currently serves as second vice commander.
Perhaps that is why when the post was opened in 1981, they chose to name their organization after the Marine, who was Pickerington High School’s only casualty of the Vietnam War.
Johnston was killed in action during Operation Taylor Common in March 1969 in Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam. As a result of his actions during this operation, Corporal Johnston was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with Combat “V” for valorous action performed during direct combat with an enemy force.
That connection to the Vietnam War could also explain why the post has worked so diligently to arrange for the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall to visit Pickerington this Veterans’ Day. As many as 60,000 people are expected to visit the post, 7725 Refugee Road, during its exhibition from Nov. 10-15.
England said the Vietnam War is being forgotten, and the post members want to make sure people remember the sacrifices that were made.
“History books say very little about the Vietnam War anymore,” he said. “That’s unfortunate. Our young people need to know about the wars. They need to know war is not fun. War is hell.”
Not much is known about the young Johnston, England said. He was not married and did not have any children. Old photos of him stationed in Vietnam show him smiling, like he had a light-hearted way of looking at life.
“He was like a lot of guys who gave their lives before they were 20,” England noted.
Rocco E. Giambrocco of Massachusetts, who served with Johnston in M Company 3rd Bn. 5th Marine Regiment 1st Marine Division, wrote an essay about Johnston titled “Thanks for my Life.” He credited Johnston with saving his life by pulling him to safety during a combat mission.
“His death haunted me for decades. It still does,” he wrote. “Dave was my friend and he was the man who saved my life. I owed him mine.”
He said Johnston was a good Marine, a great friend and a tremendous young man. As he was planning a trip to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., Giambrocco wrote, “I will say a prayer for him, thank him for the life he gave back to me, and tell him that he is thought of often.”
England is expecting to see a plethora of emotions from those who visit the wall. He said many veterans are still reluctant to speak about their experiences or acknowledge what they encountered during the Vietnam War, which was primarily fought in South Vietnam between government forces aided by the United States and guerrilla forces aided by North Vietnam.
The war began soon after the Geneva Conference in 1954 divided Vietnam into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). It escalated from a Vietnamese civil war into a limited international conflict in which the United States was deeply involved, and despite peace agreements in 1973, it did not end until North Vietnam’s successful 1975 offensive resulted in South Vietnam’s collapse and the unification of Vietnam by the North.
It was a long war, with violent outcomes – and the efforts of the U.S. troops were not always appreciated, England pointed out. Upon returning home, many Vietnam War veterans had a difficult time – and many still do.
“After Vietnam, they didn’t know about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” England said.
PTSD, which has been identified in many Vietnam veterans, is a type of anxiety disorder that can occur after seeing or experiencing a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death. Symptoms can include repeated reliving of the event, which disturbs day-to-day activity via flashbacks, dreams or physical reactions to situations that remind you of the event; avoidance, which is an emotional “numbing” or feeling as though you don’t care about anything or an inability to remember important aspects of the trauma; or arousal, which can include difficulty concentrating, exaggerated response to things that startle you, or irritability or outbursts of anger.
“Even after all these years there are guys who have served in Vietnam who haven’t gotten a handle on it,” he said. “Some have never been to the wall or any of the traveling walls.”
The wall, which was created by a veterans’ group in Brevard County, Fla., is three-fifths the size of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. It stands six feet tall at the center and covers almost 300 feet from end to end. It includes names of approximately 58,000 who were killed or missing in action in Vietnam, including 3,000 Ohio residents.
During its visit to Pickerington, the wall will be open to the public daily at no charge.
“Various honor guards will guard the wall 24 hours a day,” England said.
The nearby shelter house will have locator computers to help visitors find names on the wall, and England added, “We will have volunteers on duty to assist anybody who needs assistance.”
Those who visit the wall are asked not to bring materials to make a rubbing, he noted. Special materials will be provided.
“If anybody wants a rubbing, they have a special rice paper and special pencils, the reason being they don’t want the wall scratched,” he said.
When it is time to take the wall down, England expects to have quite a cache of items left behind. Letters, photos, candles, and memorabilia – they are all to be expected and encouraged.
“People do leave things, and they all have a meaning,” he said. “We’re going to catalog what’s left.”
Items left at the wall will either be donated to a local museum or buried as a time capsule. England said the community has been very supportive of the post’s efforts to bring the wall to the community.
In addition to providing monetary or in-kind services, the community has offered to help in many ways.
The Boy Scouts are helping to line the route with flags to bring the wall to Pickerington from Scioto Downs. As many as 3,000 motorcycles are expected to follow the wall on its route from U.S. 23 to I-270; 270 to 33; 33 to Diley Road; Diley to Hill Road/S.R. 256; and to Refugee Road.
“Of course we’d like people to get out their flags and line the path,” England said.
Both instrumental and music groups from Pickerington schools will perform patriotic music at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Veterans’ Day, which is Nov. 11.
“Later in the week the elementary schools are going to do some music, but they will probably be indoors,” England said.
In addition, the schools will have the winners from their art and essay contests displayed inside the hall, which will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
“Everybody’s excited that the wall is coming,” England said. “We’ve been working on this for 18 months.”
Oct. 31 edition: A Vietnam veteran talks about his experiences in the war.
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