Fall 2019

Etched in Stone

By Jacob Baynham

The Wall endeavors to list every U.S. service member killed in the Vietnam War. How much does it get wrong? 

It was a foggy summer morning about a decade ago when David Kies first visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and saw his own name listed among the dead. Kies’ wife pushed his wheelchair along the 500-foot wall where more than 58,000 names are engraved on black granite polished so smooth it reflects like a mirror. He found the inscription on panel 14E: David F. Kies.

He knew it would be there. In the late ’80s, someone at work left a note on his desk saying that they’d seen his name on the memorial. When a traveling replica of the Wall came to Madison, Wisconsin, Kies visited it with a friend and a flashlight in the dead of night — he didn’t want anyone to watch him fall apart.

“It’s kind of eerie seeing your name on something with a bunch of deceased people,” he said. “I guess someday it will be true.”

Kies’ name isn’t the only mistake on the Wall, which lists each U.S. casualty of the Vietnam War chronologically, by date of death. Since the memorial’s dedication, family members have identified dozens of misspelled names. Others are duplicates. Some are out of order. Some, like Kies’, belong to survivors. Last year, 4.7 million people visited the memorial and with all the errors, it’s been difficult to definitively answer their most common question: “How many names are on the Wall?”

“This is an affair of the heart, it’s not an exact science,” said Bob Herendeen, a National Park Service ranger on the National Mall. “The Wall is part of a living memory, and memory can be faulty.”

Now, after a comprehensive audit, the nonprofit that built the Wall finally has the most complete record of the memorial’s mistakes. In May, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund released the results of its four-year review, which found that 58,390 names are inscribed on the Wall to honor a total of 58,276 killed or missing U.S. service members. The distance between those two figures speaks to how this country has imperfectly remembered the casualties of the controversial Vietnam War, which deployed a generation of young conscripts from 1955 to 1975 in a bloody and ultimately futile effort to prevent the spread of communism in Asia.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built in 1982 to honor each fallen service member from that war — so many people that it takes volunteers more than four 18-hour days to read each name aloud. When the memorial was built, desktop computers were rare, and record-keeping was an arduous process. The names on the Wall initially came from casualty lists stored on magnetic tape, which VVMF staff checked eight times before inscriptions began.

Still, mistakes slipped through then and later, in the 379 names added to the memorial after its dedication. Those additions honor service members not included on the original casualty lists and were inscribed on lines with available space, as close to the member’s date of death as possible.

Even by 2015, however, an accurate digital file with the precise location of each name didn’t exist. By then, VVMF was updating a traveling replica of the memorial and had to learn exactly what was on the Wall, flaws and all. So Tim Tetz, director of outreach at VVMF, recruited 16 volunteers who spent months poring over an online photograph of the memorial and recording each name’s location and spelling. Later, volunteers repeated this process at the Wall, and the digital file of 58,390 names was complete. The next step was to cross-reference that list with a casualty list maintained by the Department of Defense and conduct research to reconcile the inconsistencies.

In this four-year process, VVMF discovered that 32 names on the Wall belong to people who survived the war. Thirteen names are duplicates, and 69 were reinscribed to correct an initial mistake. Those corrections weren’t always successful. The second name on the wall was initially misspelled, then was reinscribed on a different panel with the wrong middle initial. (It should be Chester M. Ovnand.)

Rodney G. Helsel’s name appears on the Wall three times — twice correctly and once misspelled. William F. Joyce enlisted under the name of a neighbor, Richard J. Preskenis. Joyce died in 1966, and Preskenis didn’t serve. Both names are on the Wall.

The errors are impossible to erase. “You can’t use white-out on black granite,” Tetz said. “You can’t spackle over it and re-engrave the name.”

Tetz still receives about an email a month from someone whose loved one’s name is inaccurate. He admits he’ll never know every mistake, but VVMF will continue to make corrections the Department of Defense requests as space allows and will track exactly what is on the Wall and where the errors lie. That knowledge helps preserve the legacy of service members who died, Tetz said. And for him, the errors don’t undermine the sheer power of 58,000 names etched in granite.

“They’re not just names,” he said, “they’re stories. There’s a tale behind each of them.”

When David Kies touched the memorial that foggy day on the National Mall, he recalled the day in Vietnam that changed his life.

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It was a Sunday morning in 1967, and Kies and two other soldiers from the 173rd Airborne were on a trail, gathering munitions after a night ambush. Kies stopped to light a cigarette when a claymore mine exploded in front of him. The blast cut Kies down at the knees, but his friend, Eric W. Zoller, took most of the shrapnel. Kies remembers he and Zoller were thrown onto a helicopter “like a couple pieces of wood.” Zoller died en route to a field hospital, and a coding error listed Kies as killed in action, too. His name was among the first to be carved into the Wall. Zoller is one line down. A high school friend, William A. Beyer, is on the same panel. Kies feels honored to be alongside them, even mistakenly.

“I can keep them company, I guess,” he said.

After his injury, Kies returned to Wisconsin and was fitted with artificial legs, which he used to march in anti-war protests. He had a career as an artist for the Lands’ End catalogs. For 33 years, no one invited him to a veterans reunion because his fellow service members thought he was dead.

Knowing that he’s just one of many mistakes in the memorial only makes the Wall more like the war Kies remembers — inescapably human.

“A few errors out of 58,000 is pretty good for government work,” he said. “Humans aren’t perfect. Humans make mistakes, in more ways than one.”

About the author

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue

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