(ABC)– For many of the four million annual visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the 58,261 names on the stark, V-shaped wall are just that: names on a wall. Viewed collectively, they represent an American loss. Separately, each name represents a story that, for most visitors, is as impenetrable as the black marble wall itself.
But some of the visitors are lucky enough to know -– and tell -– those stories. In some cases, it’s the friends and family members of the service members who gave their lives, who come to the wall to trace their loved one’s name with the kit provided by the National Parks Service. In other cases, it’s strangers, like four North Dakota high school students who, given the chance to learn about one service member, ended up bonding with his whole family.
The four Bismarck High School senior girls were assigned a research project in which they learned about one of the 198 service members from their state who were killed during Vietnam, a few months before a class trip to Washington. The students in this particular group found late SFC. John C. Lundin, killed in Binh Duong in April 1970. His name is on Panel 11W, Row 50 on the wall.
One of the students, Brittany Hawkinson, tracked down Cheri Lundin, the wife of John’s youngest son Ray, who was just a child when his father died.
Back in February, Hawkinson reached out to Lundin after finding her name on a memorial page honoring John, where in 2006 Cheri had written a post titled “My loss is not having met you.”
John, I married your son in 1984. We have one daughter. You would be proud of the man your son has become. I do not think a day goes by that you are not on his mind. I wish that we could have met. We were at the Vietnam Memorial in December 2005. It was a rainy and cold night. We searched the darkness determined to see your name, touch your name and say your name. You will not be forgotten for you live on through your sons and daughter and six beautiful grandchildren. We think of you often. I love you Dad, I wish we could have met….one day we will.
Ray was just eight years old when John was killed. It was clear that talking about John -– just saying his name –- kept his memory alive for the son who lost him and the daughter-in-law who wanted so badly to have known him.
“You always had that impression of this larger than life type character –- he was always had a real, deep sense of humor –- he just make you laugh,” Ray said in a phone interview.
Cheri emailed the students with all the details of John’s life. She explained how John volunteered for the U.S. Army right after high school, how he met his wife Charlotte at a tavern while based in Germany, how Charlotte balked at eating corn on the cob when John brought her home to his mother’s house because, in Germany, only the pigs ate corn on the cob.
And then, of course, came the family’s period of tragedy and heroism. According to a letter that the Defense Department sent the Lundin family, John and his fellow soldiers came under fire from an enemy group on the night of April 20, 1970.
He was able to call in air support but the squadron was too far out of range and could not help.
So John engaged the enemy with his M16 and missile launcher, drawing the fire away from the rest of his team so they could make it to safety.
But John was not among them.
His funeral, Cheri wrote the girls, was held a few weeks after his death -– the same day as his oldest son’s birthday.
Among the pictures Cheri sent the students is one of a solemn-faced eight-year-old Ray, with his brother Jimmy, sister Brenda and their mother as they accept the awards John received posthumously, including the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, in October 1970 -– six months after John’s death.
Ray said he was gratified that these high school students were taking such interest in his father’s life.
“You always carry the memory and the honor, and the remembrance of the sacrifice but to think that somebody else out there shares that with you…it’s been kind of nice.”
And the project went well beyond the walls of Bismarck High. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota’s junior senator, also got involved. She teamed up with the class shortly after they began the project, telling the stories of the service members they were researching.
“John’s family cherishes the letter the Army gave them describing John’s heroism the day he died, when he sacrificed himself by drawing fire away from his fellow soldiers,” Heitkamp said. “I know it is impossible to predict what amazing things they would have done had they not sacrificed their lives. So it is so important that we recognize their heroism, that we recognize their sacrifice, and that we honor them during this period of recognition of the sacrifices of the Vietnam War.”
One of the things John wanted to do when he got home from Vietnam was become a farmer. He had even purchased a plot of land in Topeka, Kan., where his family now resides.
John was never able to make that dream a reality, but the four students decided to do something to keep his beloved land close to him.
For the project’s culmination, each group had to create an artifact that represented their fallen hero. Ultimately they’d bring it to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the weekend before Veteran’s Day. Back in March, Cheri suggested she could send the girls some dirt from the Kansas farm, so they could mix it with North Dakota soil.
“John was a very down to earth, hard worker and loved the land,” Cheri wrote the girls in an email.
Eight months later, the students from Bismark High gathered on a brisk November morning to lay their artifacts near the names of the veteran they had spent so much time researching. Emily Schmid, another girl in the group, came brandishing a mason jar with the soil, plus a shovel on which she and her friends had painted a farm scene.
Emily was able to recount from memory the stories that Ray and Cheri told her and said the whole experience had been a moving one for her and her friends.
“Getting in touch with the families was really emotional,” Emily said. “They let us into their house, basically. They told us personal touches, things that we would have never known unless we contacted them.”
After gathering briefly with Heitkamp, who joined the students as they presented their artifacts, Emily moved swiftly to the spot on the wall where she knew she’d find John’s name.
She laid the jar and the shovel at the base of the wall closest to his name, tweaking the arrangement several times to make sure that passersby could clearly see John’s name on the jar.
Then, without having to search for even a second — just as Cheri and Ray had done in the darkness in this same spot ten years earlier -– Emily spotted and pointed to John’s name on the wall.
JOHN C. LUNDIN – Panel 11W, Row 50.