On a bruisingly cold, windy night in November, when temperatures drop quickly in the desert and breezes can be 15-20 mph, about 200 of the Antelope Valley’s hardiest citizens turned out for the 2009 dedication of the Antelope Valley Mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall. It was a memorable couple of hours.
Ten years later, following its first decade of service, what is known to most simply as the “AV Wall,” has kept on moving, sharing a mobile history lesson of support and respect for the Americans who served and sacrificed in the Vietnam War.
Anyone out on the ground, with wind chill pushing temperatures into the 30s, can remember the bright lights shining on the long, black, pyramid-shaped memorial — a half-scale replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The local memorial was unveiled on Nov. 9, 2009, amid blowing sand, at Joe Davies Air Park in Palmdale. It would become a portable monument to all who gave their lives during the Vietnam War.
The national Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., began its lessons of history and healing amid controversies as impassioned as all arguments about the Vietnam War itself. In the decades since it was inaugurated, the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial became just about the most visited shrine in the nation’s capital. The mission of the AV Wall has been to bring the experience of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to multitudes who will never journey to the nation’s capital.
One of the AV Wall’s guiding spirits is fond of a phrase that was minted by students in history teacher Jamie Goodreau’s classes at Lancaster High School. Those same students hosted the AV Wall and accorded Vietnam veterans the respect they earned, and yearned for over so many years.
“Most walls keep people out,” AV Wall Committee Chairman Michael Bertell is fond of saying. “This wall brings people together.”
The dedication of the AV Wall opened with Vietnam War veterans parading in, carrying service and national flags, the vets wearing their “boonie hats,” jungle boots and fatigues. Like the national monument, the AV Wall rose up as a tribute to the 58,276 casualties of America’s long and agonizing combat.
The national Vietnam Memorial, dedicated in November 1981, was designed by Yale architecture student Maya Lin, who was 21 at the time. Her design of a black, granite wall plunging into the earth ignited controversy at the time. Over the years, the significance of the inclusion of all the names on the Wall gave way to national reflection, mourning and reverence.
“When you see a name that you know, you see the incident, where and when it happened, and it all comes back to you,” said Bertell, a Vietnam combat veteran of the 101st Airborne Division.
Bertell, with Marine Corps Vietnam veteran George Palermo, and a small band of brothers and sisters, was instrumental in getting the AV Mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall built 10 years ago.
The AV Wall is one of only five such half-scale memorial “traveling walls” in the entire United States, and the only one based on the West Coast. Built with funds contributed by veterans, service organizations, area cities, corporate donations and even schoolchildren, the AV Wall tribute to the Vietnam Memorial is its own story about love of country and devotion to service.
“Our AV Wall came out of a community-wide, grassroots effort,” said Linda Willis, a City of Palmdale employee with the Palmdale Playhouse, and one of the original committee members.
Additionally, the AV Wall organization is an official partner of the national Vietnam War 50th Commemoration.
In the decade since the dedication of the AV Wall, the locally designed-and-built memorial has traveled to a score of locations across California, ranging from the Eastern Sierra community of Bishop, down to the San Diego area at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Tens of thousands of veterans of all eras of service, plus family members, members of youth and service groups have paid their respects at the AV Wall.
The AV Wall is about half the size of the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Like the national monument, the AV Wall is polished to a high finish, and etched with the names of the servicemen being honored in 72 panels of horizontal rows with regular typeface and spacing, measuring 252 feet. Among the more than 58,000 names are 76 sons of the Antelope Valley who lost their lives fighting the war in Vietnam.
How the AV Wall came into being emerged from a revival run of Shirley Lauro’s “A Piece Of My Heart” at the Palmdale Playhouse in 2005. Notably, the play was about women who served in Vietnam. Eight women are listed on the Vietnam Memorial, with 6,250 of the 7,484 women who served in Vietnam assigned as military nurses. Despite the vast majority of the American service deaths in Vietnam being men, the play was a wrenching experience for Vietnam veterans from the Antelope Valley who saw the play, some of them volunteers on an educational panel. Both Palmdale and Lancaster had previously hosted visits of a traveling Vietnam Memorial wall exhibit.
“Our question was, ‘Why don’t we build our own Wall?’” Marine veteran Palermo said.
“The idea was to make our own version of the Wall as a resource to the community, and to share it,” Bertell said.
“We have Mike Bertell to blame for building the AV Wall,” Vietnam War Navy veteran Glen Nester said.
At the time “A Piece Of My Heart” was revived, war raged in Iraq and Afghanistan, with U.S. casualties — mostly young soldiers and Marines — returning to the Antelope Valley in flag-draped caskets. Also, surviving troops returned home with issues related to their own combat zone experiences.
“We didn’t want what happened to us to ever happen to the troops coming home from these wars,” Palermo said at the time. Thus, he and a number of local Vietnam War veterans made a point of attending “Welcome Home” ceremonies for returning units and individuals.
Meanwhile, the group of local veterans coalesced with volunteers from Palmdale Playhouse and the wider community to raise funds for a memorial that would make citizens of the Antelope Valley proud.
None of this was easy, and it became a years’ long effort. A local firm, Signs + Designs, agreed to take on the project, and try to meet its own expenses. Ultimately, more than $100,000 would be needed to complete the AV Wall, expenses to cover design, construction and engraving, using a composite material “that was the closest we could get in a black material we could engrave,” Navy veteran Nester recalled.
Much of the effort turned around a citizens committee, with staff and volunteers from the Palmdale Playhouse, and the small, dedicated membership of a veterans talking support group, Point Man Ministries of the Antelope Valley.
The drive was coming up short — maybe as much as $30,000 short. Both cities had donated, and so had American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts. The major aerospace primes had contributed. But it still was not enough.
“We had a meeting,” Nester recalled. “And we were trying to decide whether to shut it down, and try to give the money back.” He added, “Mike Bertell said, ‘We’ve come this far. It would seem a shame if we didn’t give it one more try.’”
Linda Santana, an Antelope Valley native and magazine editor, suggested a renewed drive that would involve local schools. It was called “Pennies for Soldiers.” Five-gallon water bottles were posted around the community, and in schools ranging from elementary through high school. More than $20,000 was raised that way. It was nearly enough to put the drive over the top. And then, the drive was over the top. After its initial display, city leadership nominated the Point Man AV organization as “Guardians of the AV Wall.”
Many of the AV Wall’s presentations — like this 10th Anniversary Celebration — have been at the Palmdale Amphitheater, attracting thousands of visitors annually. A trio of volunteers from City of Palmdale, including Linda Willis, Planning Commissioner Chair Stacia Nemeth, and Annie Pagliaro, Recreation Supervisor with city Recreation and Culture, work with Bertell and the volunteers who help the AV Wall Committee in its work of respect and healing.
Ten years is a good time to look at the legacy of the AV Wall, its moving tribute, and relation to the national Vietnam Memorial.
Editor’s Note: Longtime AV journalist and Army veteran Dennis Anderson has covered the Antelope Valley Mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall since its inception in 2005.
Schedule of Events, AV Wall 10th Anniversary
•Patriotic Volunteer Motorcycle Escort 9 a.m., beginning at Hunter RAM of the West, 43226 10th St. West in Lancaster
• Gates Open at 5 p.m. and remain open to the public until 8 a.m., Nov. 12
• Open to public and Taps played at 9 p.m.
• 10th Anniversary Ceremony — Open to the public, veterans from all eras welcomed
• 11 a.m., Guest Speakers:
– Ron Reyes, Gold Star Son
– Joe Ramos, retired U.S. Army colonel, representative for Vietnam War Commemoration
– April Graves, Signs + Designs — Builder of AV Wall
• Candlelight Walk at 9 p.m. followed by Taps
• Open to public and Taps played at 9 p.m.
• Veterans Day ceremony at 11 a.m. — with patriotic performances by vocalist Rat Pack Ricky, the Air National Guard
Band of the West Brass Quintet. Honored Guest Speaker, Brig. Gen. E. John Teichert, commander 412th Test Wing, Edwards Air Force Base
• Appreciation Pin for every veteran in attendance
• 50th Commemoration Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pin Presentation
Note: Taps every night at 9 p.m. Gates close at 8 a.m., Nov. 12