WASHINGTON - The Vietnam War has been over for more than four decades and claimed more than 58,000 lives of American military members. The names of the fallen are etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in the nation’s capital where loved ones go to grieve, heal and remember.
It is a solemn place for many, especially for sons and daughters who never knew their fathers.
Ari Harrison and Jan Wieneke have a bond. Their dads were both pilots during the Vietnam War.
Harrison’s father, a West Point graduate, was a helicopter pilot who was shot down on May 23, 1970.
Five years earlier on December 11, 1965, Wieneke’s father was killed when the plane he was piloting struck a mountaintop in the fog. Everyone on board was killed. His funeral at Arlington National Cemetery held nearly 15 years later.
"I remember the riderless horses and the boots stuck in backwards – that was the thing that I remembered the most,” said Wieneke. “Then whole procession through Arlington, the gun salute, the band and then the folding of the flags – the flag that was over the casket. You could hear a pin drop. It was so quiet. Then they handed me that flag. It was very meaningful and touching at the time.”
Harrison was just three months old when his father was killed. Over the years, he has searched for men who knew his father. He found some of them at a reunion in 2003.
"I met the gentleman that was in his aviation battalion and they all knew him,” he said. “A gentleman came up and started talking to me and said, ‘I was 19 years old, I was on the command ship that is about 5,000 feet up and we watched it all and we couldn’t get to him because the landing zone was so hot.’ He started crying and others started bawling and I was trying to console them.”
As Harrison got older growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, he would come to the wall to talk to his dad.
“When I was in college during the summer, I’d come down at two o'clock in the morning and I would talk to my father and just spend some time,” Harrison recalled.
Over the years, Wieneke would do the same.
"We would come down a lot of times late at night because nobody else is here, the tourists aren’t here, it’s quiet, and it’s like we are with our dads because their names are on the wall,” she said. “We have been down here at times when some people would be crying at the wall and lighting a candle. We have played down here. I remember one year it rained and we were sliding up and down on the cement and it was like we were playing in front of our dads.”
Wieneke and Harrison are part of Sons and Daughters In Touch, a national support organization that unites Gold Star sons and daughters who have lost service members in Vietnam.
"It was an instant bond and we call ourselves brothers and sisters,” said Harrison. “It’s a unique, unfortunate bond.”
A bond that embraces the memory of their fathers – forever.