Missing in Action: Vendors seek to educate visitors about Vietnam War

The GW student on a casual stroll near the Vietnam and Lincoln memorials is likely to notice a few stands selling an array of pins and patches from the Vietnam War. But there’s more to the makeshift storefronts than tiny pieces of memorabilia.

“By the end of the Vietnam War, there were 2,300 troops missing,” said Don “Smitty” Smith, who works at one of the booths and is a board member of the group Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally-Washington, D.C. “We hope people will leave here with more information about the past of the (prisoner-of-war) issue, as people are still looking for remains.”

Smith said the booths expanded out of makeshift vigils created by veterans and their friends and family members after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built in 1982. Rolling Thunder, founded in 1987, operates three of the four remaining locations near the memorial. Smith, who is in charge of managing the booths, said he and his fellow volunteers’ primary mission is educating the public about the more than 1,000 troops who were left behind in Vietnam.

“A lot of times we have high school tours coming through and sometimes teachers get the kids to stop here and ask us questions,” said Smith, who was in the U.S. Marine Corps during Vietnam but was never deployed to the region.

Besides educating the public, Smith said he and his volunteers also have a duty to console veterans who are making their trip to the somber reminder of lost troops for the first time.

“I have, on several occasions, locked the booth up because I could tell a guy needed some emotional support,” Smith said. “Some guys come here from as far away as California and don’t have it in them to take that walk.”

Rolling Thunder began with plans for a 1988 motorcycle rally to honor veterans and soldiers who were missing in action. Since then, the event has grown in size from 25,000 bikers to more than 600,000, Smith said, and the group has pushed for increased awareness on the POW-MIA movement that seeks to ascertain the fate of the thousands of servicemen and women who were captured or went missing in past wars. POW-MIA is short for prisoner of war-missing in action.

Smith said Rolling Thunder lobbies for POW-MIA issues and contributes money to charitable organizations and veterans’ causes – a portion of which comes from sales at the memorial booths. The group also sponsors weekly dinners at a D.C. restaurant for wounded active duty troops who return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Surrounded by an array of pins, patches, bracelets and other mementos of different military branches and Vietnam divisions, Smith said his volunteers do not necessarily need to have been in the military.

“You deal with the public, so you want people to have knowledge of POW issues and veterans’ issues,” Smith said. “You want people to be able to answer questions. It’s part of the interaction.”

Bill Bags, who has been a volunteer at the booths for two months, said he was inspired to work by the wall because of a friend that he lost in Vietnam.

“I knew somebody who went there and didn’t come back,” said Baggs, who never served in the military. “It motivated me really, since that person never came back to tell me what it was like over there.”

Speaking just before midnight on a quiet, cool night, Baggs said he enjoys interacting with people and talking to veterans about their experiences.

“At times I see people come up to here like little kids who have a look of amazement on their faces – like kids in a candy store,” said Robert Smith, another volunteer, describing the reaction of some pedestrians to the selection of hundreds of items at each booth. “They have a certain look, like a glaze on their face.”

Smith, who never served in the military but wanted to get more involved with veterans issues, said he takes pleasure in easing the grief of visitors to the wall.

“(People) come back (from the memorial) with mixed emotions. Sometimes you grasp the emotions of people and you just want to be there for them. Their emotions make you feel better that we’re here,” he said.

Jim Davis, who served in the Navy during the 1960s and spends time manning one of the stands, said he enjoys the peaceful atmosphere during night shifts, which last eight hours.

While providing a commercial service to the public at all hours is important, Smith said he derives real satisfaction by helping to remember America’s veterans, especially those who were captured or went missing.

“Had things worked out differently, that could have been me out there with my family wondering if I’m dead or alive,” Smith said. “I hope people take away … a respect and appreciation for our veterans, active duty military and wounded troops.”

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