There are 58,318 reasons to visit "The Wall That Heals," the three-quarter scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that tours the country and is currently set up at Madonna Meadows, near the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, until Sunday.
That's how many names are etched into the somber black surface of the wall: 58,310 men and eight women of the U.S. military who died during the war that raged in Southeast Asia from 1955 to 1973. The Vietnam War remains the longest military engagement in U.S. history; the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001, is the second-longest.
"It serves as a place for people to come remember and honor the people who served in that war," said Callie Wright, educational programs manager with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C., who travels with the wall from city to city.
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The wall will make 38 stops this year across United States, she said. After SLO, the wall will travel to Gardena, then it's on to Texas and Tennessee.
The wall memorializes people like U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Dan Bullock, the youngest American to die in Vietnam. He was only 15.
"And he made it through Marine boot camp at the age of 14," Wright said, before dying just six months later.
Wright said Bullock shares a panel on the wall with nurse and U.S. Army 1st Lt. Sharon Lane, one of eight women who died in the war and the only one killed by enemy fire.
With tens of thousands of names, ordered chronologically from the middle by date of death, it can be hard to find the names of fallen relatives or friends. That's why docents like former U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dennis Blessman, of Roland Heights, are present.
Blessman is himself a Vietnam War veteran; he enlisted into the Air Force at 19 and served a tour of duty in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. He served as the war was entering the especially lethal period known as the Tet Offensive, which pushed the number of fatalities in the war to that point past 30,000.
Blessman was an aircraft weapons mechanic for a F-100 Super Sabre; he said he recalled spending his nights listening to his base "get rocketed and mortared quite frequently."
Blessman said people like him went to Vietnam on the premise that they were fighting the global spread of Communism, "and that turned out not to be the truth," he said.
But they nevertheless continued to do their duty, he said, despite being rewarded for it by returning home to bitter protests.
"That was very discouraging," he said.
While public opinion toward the men and women who served in Vietnam has since shifted, Wright said it can be difficult for young people to grasp the scale of casualties suffered in that war, especially with the passage of so much time.
"I think it can be hard for people to have a connection, but what I always say is that everybody on the wall is somebody's brother, somebody's father, somebody's son, somebody's high school sweetheart, somebody's friend," she said. "Everybody on this wall means something to somebody."
The wall is "open" 24 hours a day, and Wright recommended visiting it once during the day and then again at night, when the wall is lit up. There will be a candlelight vigil at the wall Friday evening and a closing ceremony Sunday.