Illinois Valley

Veterans salute names on the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall in Peru

‘It is the highest honor you can have’

A couple walks the length of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, at Veterans Memorial Park in Peru.

Bob Hockings of Peru served as U.S. Army medic in the Vietnam War. He saw his share of action in the war and since then, there have been memorials and monuments he could not bear.

“I’ve seen too much,” Hockings said.

But he dutifully suited up with fellow veterans Saturday at Veterans Park in Peru. There, Hockings and his comrades honored those whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall.

The wall, a 3/5 scale of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., stands 6 feet tall and spans almost 300 feet wide. It arrived Thursday amid great fanfare and was to remain open for public viewing through Sunday.

Replicas of the Middle East Conflicts Wall in Marseilles and the 9/11 first responders wall also were on display.

“This doesn’t bother me so much as when I went on Honor Flight to Washington,” Hockings said of the experience. “I had to walk away. I couldn’t handle it.

“But I’ve been burying veterans now for 15 years with the memorial squad and I’m kind of getting used to it – just like a funeral director, I guess,” Hockings said.

Hockings wasn’t the only veterans grappling with memories or blinking back tears while viewing the traveling wall.

“I encourage you to serve your country. It is the highest honor you can have.”

—  Joe Navarro, Vietnam veteran, U.S. Marine Corps

Phil Valle, of La Salle, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1966-70 in southeast Asia, spending 13 months in Thailand. He was close enough to the combat zone have friends on the wall: Anthony Shine and his brother, Jonathan Shine.

“This is a special thing to me to be a part of,” Valle said, shortly before lineup. “It’s going to be an emotional day.”

Saturday’s ceremony drew an intimate crowd – only a couple of hundred spectators scattered across the playing field – but then the wall is, by definition, an intimate experience.

Doc Russo, a veteran of the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps (1982-90), has served as wall manager for 16 years and has witnessed some emotional moments, and many times healing ones.

Addressing the throng, Russo said he is asked why he travels so extensively with the wall. In response, he frequently cites the time a bereaved mother in West Virginia found her fallen son’s name on the wall. The Gold Star mom sought out Russo to say thank you.

“‘This is the first time in 47 years my son has been home,’” Russo recalled her saying. In the next breath he told spectators, “I don’t need another reason to do what I do.”

Another speaker, Marine Corps veteran Joe Navarro, grew choked up remembering not only his fallen comrades in Vietnam but also some who were permanently damaged in their valorous service.

Navarro, the La Salle County state’s attorney, said he first met veteran Orlando Capozzoli after he’d fallen on hard times. Navarro was prosecuting one of Capozzoli’s brushes with the law when he delved into the man’s service record and was stunned, Navarro said.

Italian-born and with limited English, Capozzoli enlisted in the Marines at 17. He saved his unit in Vietnam by killing three machine-gunners (one with his bare hands) and was hospitalized with gunshot wounds of his own.

“He really suffered with demons throughout his life as a result of that experience,” Navarro said.

In spite of such tragedies, Navarro urged his youngest listeners to consider service in the U.S. Armed Forces.

“I encourage you to serve your country,” he said. “It is the highest honor you can have.”

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Tom Collins covers criminal justice in La Salle County.