The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is missing names, according to a veterans group pushing for legislation that would have the Defense Department re-examine the eligibility requirements for inscribing names on the memorial wall.
Sailors who served on the USS Frank E. Evans, a destroyer that sank with 74 people on board in a 1969 accident, say their dead shipmates deserve recognition.
Bill Thibeault, a ship cook who survived the accident, said his shipmates’ names have not been etched on the black granite memorial because “they weren’t technically in the war zone at the time.” He added, “We were just over that war-zone line.”
The Evans collided with an Australian aircraft carrier while on a combat training mission in the South China Sea.
Ken Adams, vice president of the USS Frank E. Evans Association, said last week that the ship had departed the combat zone five days earlier to restock supplies in the Philippines and likely would have been sent back to combat after the training exercise.
If it weren’t for the war in Vietnam, “these poor guys would be alive,” Thibeault said.
A Senate and a House bill introduced earlier this year, both referred to committees, would require the Defense secretary to report on the feasibility of revising the requirements for inclusion of servicemen on the war memorial and offer possible alternative solutions.
Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), who introduced the House bill in mid-June, said last week that all 74 sailors from the Evans should be on the wall “by virtue of the fact that this ship went down, these were enlisted folks who were on their way to do the business of the people in his country.”
Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), the bill’s only co-sponsor, said the 74 should at least be considered. “There’s a good case there,” he said, adding that names are continuously being added to the memorial. “There’s nothing unusual with this request.”
Since the memorial’s dedication in 1982, 296 names have been added, including 68 Marines who were killed when their plane crashed in Hong Kong.
Alan Greilsamer, spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which overseas the memorial, said there is room left for about 200 more names.
He was cautious about adding additional people to the wall. “You have a memorial with a finite amount of space. If you look at the inscription on the memorial, it honors all those who served,” he said.
Millender-McDonald said the Evans accident may be only one of many unacknowledged cases. The Defense Department study would identify all combat-related deaths not listed on the wall and examine ways they “can be placed or listed in some fashion on the wall, even if we have to have a wall next to the wall or design another wall,” she said.
Simmons said he does not envision expanding the wall but does want the study performed.
The 108th Congress is the second in which the Evans Association has tried to get a bill studying expansion of the memorial.
Adams, who served as a radar man onboard the Evans from 1961 to 1963, said his organization has been trying for more than a decade to achieve recognition for the fallen sailors. It’s been a frustrating process, he said, because “the standard policy of all Senators and all Congressmen is that they have a staff that filters out information that you send to them.”
During the 107th Congress, then-Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) sponsored a similar bill that had 65 co-sponsors. It was referred to the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel in January 2002.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), sponsor of the current Senate bill calling for a war memorial study, also introduced the same legislation in the previous Congress. That bill was referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2002.
Adams said he is “cautiously optimistic” the 108th Congress will pass the Vietnam Veterans Memorial study bills.
“The fact of it is, those families have nothing, absolutely nothing, to make reference to, a gravesite, not anything else, because they were lost at sea,” he said.