A place to remember the fallen; Wall draws loved ones of those killed

A place to remember the fallen; Wall draws loved ones of those killed

Kevin Taylor Staff writer

In a space about as long as a football field, more than 58,000 fallen soldiers from the Vietnam War were honored Monday evening when the black aluminum sections of the Traveling Wall Vietnam Memorial were erected alongside U.S. Highway 95 near here.

The Traveling Wall, at the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s casino until Thursday, is a portable version of artist Maya Lin’s stark homage to troops who were killed in Vietnam. At least two versions of the Traveling Wall have stopped in the Inland Northwest in recent years in Spokane, Chewelah and Sandpoint.

On Monday evening people came again, driving, in some cases, for hours.

“I’ll tell you what brings people: Memory. My daughter. Her father,” Theresa Litwin-Sullivan said. The Moses Lake woman had just placed a bouquet of artificial white roses and a family snapshot at the base of the wall under the name Sgt. Robert R. Litwin, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne who died of wounds in Vietnam on June 22, 1967.

He was 25. He was from another lifetime, perhaps, but he had been Theresa Litwin-Sullivan’s husband. He was Donna Sather’s dad. The two women came, each with a spouse, to remember.

Robert Litwin and Theresa met in Chicopee, Mass.. They married young and had two kids. He joined the service at 19. They were married 7 years. Donna was 6 when her dad died.

“I think this is a wonderful, wonderful memorial to these men who sacrificed their lives at such young ages,” Litwin-Sullivan said. “When he knew he was going, he told me that it was the right thing to do.”

Litwin was in Vietnam only about six months when his unit was ambushed.

“He radioed in for artillery and help,” Litwin-Sullivan said.

Tears came. Her shoulders shook. “I’m not crying. I’m proud,” she said. “He saved six or seven men. He was mortally wounded.”

“He refused medical aid,” Donna Sather said.

“He kept pulling the others out,” Litwin-Sullivan said.

She knows the story because “I was one of those determined widows” and traveled with her kids, Donna and Robert Jr., to Fort Bragg where she talked to survivors of the ambush.

“One of them told me, ‘Teri, you should be very, very proud,’ ” Litwin-Sullivan said.

Donna Sather had seen her dad’s name on the wall in Washington, D.C. When she heard the Traveling Wall would stop in the rolling country just north of Worley, she called her mom in Moses Lake.

And on Monday, memories drove Theresa Litwin-Sullivan and her husband, Patrick, to travel several hours east. Memories drove Donna Sather and her husband, Randy, up from St. Maries.

The family left a photograph of a crew-cut man in dress uniform holding a little girl in a yellow coat with a matching hat. Standing at his elbow is a young woman with a hat and veil. The photo is an offering from a wife and a daughter.

“As our traditional people say, when you do something for relatives in the other world, they know it,” tribal member David Matheson, chief executive of the casino, told the audience during the opening ceremony.

The Litwin-Sullivans and the Sathers were not alone.

Michael George, a Coeur d’Alene tribal member from Tensed, came to see the name of Robert Goddard and other cousins who died overseas. “Even if you haven’t been in the service, you feel these people’s presence,” George said.

People drifted along the wall, some standing in silent prayer, others holding paper up to a name and making pencil-rubbings.

More would come after sunset, predicted Ron Emerson, a Vietnam vet working a four-hour shift as an honor guard with Hayden’s American Legion Post 3981.

“I hosted the one in Sandpoint, and people came between 9 and midnight – mostly veterans, it seemed,” said Emerson, who served with the 11th Cavalry’s combat engineers and who came home from Vietnam on the Fourth of July, 1967.

Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar, a wounded Vietnam veteran, delivered plain-spoken but heartfelt opening remarks, evoking the spirit of young men suddenly in the craziness of war.

“There is a lot of humor in combat. We relied on humor to get us through, because we didn’t have time to grieve,” Stensgar said. He and his comrades were all young, many in their teens.

“We had dreams. Dreams of coming home to girlfriends or wives. Dreams of coming home to jobs. There were a lot of stories that we shared, and we had heavy hearts when they fell.” Even after 35 years or so, he remembers the stories, the dreams. “That’s what that wall means to us,” Stensgar said.

“Take time to get close and look at the names,” he said. “I hope this wall brings some comfort to you, because it does for me.”

SIDEBAR: IF YOU GO NO CHARGE The Traveling Wall is staffed around the clock by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Warrior Society, area veterans groups and counselors. There is no admission charge, but donations are accepted. The wall will be at the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s casino until 5 p.m. Thursday.___

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