SIDNEY — Charlie Sellner, of Sidney, and his 3-year-old daughter, Nikita, weren’t in Custenborder Park Thursday morning at 7 a.m. when 20 Shelby County Historical Society (SCHS) volunteers, many of them Vietnam War veterans, began to set up the AVTT-TWF Vietnam Memorial replica wall.
The Sellners arrived several hours later when the tribute was in place.
“I’ve always wanted to go see the real wall,” Sellner said. “I’ve never been to Washington. I’ve never had the chance (to go). So I wanted to see this. I wanted to explain it to (Nikita). I think it’s real important.”
He led his daughter through the Field of Valor, where 1,000 American flags were billowing in the late summer breeze. Then, he tenderly knelt to her level in front of the wall and, his big hand over her tiny one, together they tenderly touched a name that was etched there. And a couple of people watching them from afar let tears stream down their faces.
The wall and the flags have that effect.
“Freedom is always purchased for a price,” said SCHS Secretary Rich Wallace, never taking his gaze from the memorial. “Look at all the names. They bought your freedom. Every name on that wall gave us a gift.”
As the centerpiece of the SCHS Week of Valor, the installations in Custenborder Park will remain open 24 hours per day through 3 p.m., Sunday. Admission is free.
Irene and Todd Hilgen and Sharon Toy, all of St. Charles, Illinois, traveled through three states to see them. The out-of-towners are members of the Knights of the Inferno Motorcycle Club. Its Ohio chapter sent a notice nationwide that cyclists could escort the wall as it entered Sidney from Wapakoneta.
“We were only 300 miles away, so we came down for it,” Toy said. The Hilgens’ son is in the Army. They had not participated in an escort before and had difficulty describing what it felt like to be among the almost 3,000 riders Wednesday evening.
“It’s incredible. It’s beyond words. It’s a feeling,” Irene said. Todd noted the tremendous support of the project “in all the towns along the route.” There were few places between Wapakoneta and Custenborder Park that were not lined with residents waving flags and applauding as the entourage passed.
“It re-established my faith in the American people,” Irene said.
“It was a great show of patriotism by your community. It was just what I needed,” added Toy.
Visiting the wall wasn’t so much about patriotism as it was about history for an Upper Valley Career Center GED class Thursday. ABLE instructor Geri Ryan, assistant Sonia Haines, of St. Paris, and six students were in Custenborder Park on a class field trip.
“My students are expected to know history,” Ryan said. “We saw the article in the paper, we went to the (Ross Historical Center) and saw the war exhibit there. This was a nice follow-up to that.”
Another group on a field trip were from Open Hands in West Milton. Stephanie Edwards, of Sidney, took them to the park because “a lot of us have family members who served. We wanted to see what (this) was all about.”
For Scott Sheffer, of Houston, what it is all about is honor. A career Army veteran who served in Vietnam and in Desert Storm, he stood in full dress uniform, ramrod straight, as he looked toward the monument.
“I came out to honor the wall and everybody that’s on it,” he said. He planned to return today, in uniform, to hear the address at 10 a.m. by Vietnam veteran and author David Taylor. People attending should take lawn chairs.
Honor led Nancy Deafenbaugh, of Sidney, to the park, too.
“I’m so honored to know that people care enough about our country to serve,” she said. “It’s just wonderful that Sidney brought this here and last night, the escort, was amazing, too.”
And for some, it’s about the beauty.
“I think this is the prettiest thing,” said Jill Jacobs, of Sidney, who had come with family members.
As the flags waved on top of the wall and behind it, the sun streamed through a bright blue sky and the expanse of lawn in the park glistened with dew, the tribute to America and its war dead was a pretty sight. But the feelings that are evoked are what makes the experience of being there so strong for almost all who attend.
The wall and the Field of Valor stand in silent witness to sacrifice and loss, bravery and heroism. They allow people to understand all that, even if only for a moment.
“If we can get the next generation to make a commitment that (war) never happens again, it’s totally worth it for us to do this every five years,” Wallace said. He stopped short, however, of affirming that SCHS will repeat the Week of Valor in 2020.
“We need to continually evaluate our role in raising up our legacy of history and getting people to remember the legacy,” he said.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824. Follow her on Twitter @PASpeelmanSDN.