Mobile memorial: Traveling Vietnam War plaques visit Ninilchik

It took Mike Hilbert several minutes of searching, squinting in the harsh noon sunlight and using his fingers to trace the outlines of names carved in the reflective wall.


When he finally found what he was looking for near the bottom of one of the panels, his shoulders sagged and he knelt down heavily.

"He was my best friend," Hilbert said before his voice cracked.

All around the Ninilchik man, some of the more than 200 people visiting the memorial stared, pointed and touched the wall.

Many looked for friends, relatives, acquaintances or just absorbed the full gravity of 58,272 one-inch names crammed onto the "Moving Wall" a half-scale replica of the permanent Vietnam War memorial after the opening ceremony Saturday at the American Legion Post 18 in Ninilchik.

Hilbert, like so many others, could not talk about the name he searched for without becoming emotional.

Pausing for a moment, he closed his eyes and opened them to look down at 12 one-inch white letters etched into the wall; the only tangible reminder of James Novotny aside from Hilbert's own memories.

"We hunted together, played football together, wrestled together in high school. There were about 32 of us that hung out together and only 16 of them came back," he said.

The Moving Wall display will be open 24 hours a day until Thursday at noon and Hilbert said he'd be back and maybe try to find each of the other 15 friends he'd lost during the Vietnam War.

"The hardest thing is, I can't remember their names," he said. "It comes with time."

Hilbert wasn't a veteran.

He recalled breaking his foot at work just before being summoned and standing naked in a room, waiting for his physical, the only one in a cast.

He said he was told he'd be taken the next time around, but that time never came.

But there was no shortage of Vietnam-era veterans on-hand Saturday, more than organizers were expecting.

"We didn't realize ourselves at the legion post how many were really connected with the Vietnam era," said Betty Randall, a member of the American Legion auxiliary in Ninilchik. "I think just about everyone that handled one of these panels is a Vietnam vet. Some of the guys came down here, I know them, I didn't realize they were Vietnam vets."

Randall, whose husband was in the airforce during the Vietnam War, said she thought those connected to the Vietnam war was vilified by most of the public was one of the reason veterans don't talk about their service.

"There was a lot of resentment against the military, a lot of resentment against the boys being there, a lot of resentment about the government getting us in that position in the first place," she said.

Randall paused as she struggled to find the right terms for what to classify the military action in Vietnam.

"It was a war, I don't care what they call it -- it was a flat out war," she said.

During that era, it wasn't just the military members who suffered.
"My husband was a career man in the Air Force and he was stationed in Vietnam. It wasn't the part of being separated that bothered me. I understood all that when I married him that he was going to make the military his career. I understood that there was going to be times when we were going to be apart," she said. "When people found out that I was a military wife and my husband was in Vietnam, their reactions weren't good.

"I got to the point that if people didn't know me, I did not admit that I was a military wife and I did not admit that my husband was in Vietnam."

Herb Stettler, a Soldotna man and member of the Jerry V. Horn Memorial Post No. 10046, made a rubbing of Horn's name.

"We have his medals in there and we'll put this rubbing in there beside his picture," Stettler said.

Stettler lost his composure as well when he talked about why the memorial was important.

"If it hadn't have been for them, who knows where we would be," he said.

Joe Barzan, a Marine Corps veteran of Sterling, said he was heartened by the number of younger people he saw visiting the memorial.

He said he hoped it would give them a sense of history and respect for the past.

"Some did all. Some not too much, but they all did something. Everybody did something," he said. "These guys paid the same sacrifice we're seeing now in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Free food, coffee and drinks as well as an information booth will be open at all times for people who may not want to visit the memorial during the day.

Hilbert eventually stood up and wiped away the orange chalk he'd used to make a rubbing of the name. He said he was crushed when he found out that Novotny had died.

Lost in thought, Hilbert spoke in fragmented sentences, pulling details from the haze of nearly 50 years of memory.

"Big guy. They had to order a special helmet for him in football because he was so massive. We used to hunt rabbits with a pick handle. We'd run them in the snow and pheasants and stuff like that," Hilbert said. "He was all-state in wrestling, heavyweight. I think he weighed probably 228 or something like that. Just solid muscle."

The memories turned dark.

"When he got handed all the camouflage he said 'Well, I know where I'm headed,' but he said when he came out of boot camp we'd have to get together and have some beers. 'We'll have to sneak a few beers.' That never happened. He was 19. He never had a girlfriend. He was just cheated. He'd have loved it up here."

Rashah McChesney can be reached at


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