Kathy and I had the opportunity to visit the Vietnam War Memorial a few years ago when we spent a week of vacation time in the Washington, D.C. area. I had seen the memorial, or The Wall, as it has come to be known, many times in photos and on television. Still, nothing prepared me for actually standing there and touching the names. Each and every one of the war's 58,282 American casualties is listed, including my second cousin, Grady Ray Nelson of Coos Bay, Oregon.
An Army SP4, Grady Ray was killed in combat on Nov. 23, 1968, in the Hua Ngia Province of South Vietnam. He was 22 years old.
Grady Ray was born in Memphis, Texas, to Dude and Maggie Nelson, and it was there that he spent the first five years of his life. The entire family went west when the drought of the 1950s finally forced them away from the family farm. My uncle Dude would eventually find work in the lumber mills in the Pacific northwest. As you can imagine, the family was devastated when word arrived at the Nelson home that Grady Ray had been killed in action. It would be some time later that a few sketchy details of his death were released. He died in an aircraft, believed to be a helicopter, when it came under hostile fire from the ground.
Everything I just told you about Grady Ray would be little more than a story if it weren't for the fact that we have a photo of him in his combat fatigues taken not long before his death. But, we do have the photo and once you put a face with the name, the story somehow becomes more real.
Newspaper men and women learned that trick decades ago and that's why we continue to run as many photos as we can alongside our stories, especially photos of people. I mention all of this because I hope you will join me and the Texas Press Association in supporting the Faces Never Forgotten project sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation.
The group is attempting to locate photos of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who died in Vietnam. At last count, there were slightly more than 1,400 names from Texas for which there is no corresponding photo.
TPA is encouraging all of its member newspapers to participate in hopes that the Wall of Faces website can be completed.
Ask yourself, who in your community is better suited and has better resources for tracking down a photo than the local newspaper?
A list of the missing Texans can be found at http://tinyurl.com/TXForgottenFaces — a spreadsheet will automatically download. From there, you may sort by county or community name. A quick check of the date of death will help narrow down a date and make it easier to check your archives. If your newspaper doesn't have a photo, perhaps you can locate family members who do.
Information about how to submit a photo to the project may be found online at http://www.vvmf.org/how-to-submit.
Please lend your help to the effort as the Faces Never Forgotten project seeks to honor all of those who fought and died so very far from home. A photo, even a grainy one, will add context to their story, and will help future generations understand how and why these men and women came to die in Southeast Asia.