WASHINGTON — The sounds of bagpipes filled the air Sunday as people carried roses along a cobblestone path toward the black marble wall. Among them was Denise Reed, wearing a button with a photo of her father, Army Sgt. Harold Reed, who died in Vietnam when Denise was 6 years old.
Reed joined dozens of now-grown children who traveled from across the nation to Washington over the weekend to pay their respects to the fathers they lost during the Vietnam War. The nonprofit Sons and Daughters in Touch and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund hosted a Father’s Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Reed and others pressed roses and memorabilia against the names of their fathers etched in the memorial before leaving the items at the base of the Wall on Sunday morning. Some Gold Star children, the term given to those who lose a parent at war, used ladders to reach their father’s names. A Vietnam veteran carrying a box of red roses, which symbolize soldiers killed in combat, placed a rose on the wall and saluted the names in solemn repetition.
“It is really overwhelming,” said Reed, 55, who lives in the District. “When I was in college, I became friends with someone whose dad had also been killed in Vietnam, but I just never really realized the massive amount of lives lost, and it was really overwhelming.”
More than 58,000 U.S. military deaths are recorded from the war. More than 1,600 Americans remain unaccounted for from the conflict, according to the Defense Department. Some of these missing service members are the parents of Gold Star children, who have yet to confirm their father’s deaths.
Difficult to discuss grief
Reed’s father grew up in Southwest Washington and attended Armstrong Manual Training High School. She recalls her father, an athlete for as long as she can remember, as a “gregarious person” and a “big jokester.”
“I remember being at the dinner table and him saying ‘Oh, look at that!’ and then I’d look at it and turn back and my plate would be gone,” Reed said.
Although Reed recalls people in the District “honoring my father and embracing my family” when they learned about her father’s death, “America’s Longest War” is arguably one of the most controversial events in American history. Unlike Reed, other members of Sons and Daughters in Touch recall the difficulty of discussing their grief with a largely antiwar community.
“I was very shocked when I met other Sons and Daughters of this organization when they told me that, because I can honestly say I don’t remember ever hearing the adults around me talking about anything like that, either,” Reed said.
For Gail Worley Permenter of Wauconda, Ill., Sunday’s event was a “beautiful way to pay tribute” to the fathers. Permenter was joined by her three siblings, and all four said that they think there is more respect for veterans today than in the past.
“It’s hard to explain that time and that era,” said Dana Davila, Permenter’s sister. Davila pinned an image of their father on her name tag during the ceremony. Davila was 9 years old in the photo. “He was a major general in the Air Force. A career guy.”
Permenter and another sister, Vicki Hall, traveled to Vietnam in 2003 with other members of Sons and Daughters in Touch to visit the site where their father’s RF-4C Phantom was shot down in 1968.
Permenter’s brother, Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Worley II, followed in their father’s footsteps and recalls losing his father around age 14.
“Whether it’s Vietnam, World War II, Korea, Afghanistan, these people are doing what their country asked them to do,” Worley II said. “And they should be respected for that.”
Navy Rear Adm. Robert Shumaker, who spent eight years as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down during a 1965 mission in North Vietnam, told those in attendance Sunday that his motivation to make it home was fueled by the need to see his son. It was the perfect sentiment for Father’s Day.
“There’s simply no greater love than the love for your children.”