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Atascadero family still waits for U.S. recognition of lost sailor's sacrifice

Jim Kerr's name is among those added to California's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento.
Jim Kerr's name is among those added to California's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento. Courtesy photo

An Atascadero man is frustrated that his late brother and 73 other fallen veterans have not yet been recognized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., especially after the latest attempts to introduce legislation to make it happen have fizzled.

“(The government) was happy to sign these guys up (for war), but they turn their backs on them now,” Atascadero resident Fred Kerr said.

Last year, The Tribune published a story about Fred Kerr’s brother, Jim, who was among the 74 American sailors who died in June 1969 aboard the USS Frank E. Evans destroyer when it crashed during a wartime training exercise off the coast of South Vietnam.

According to author Louise Esola, then-President Richard Nixon's administration worked to dissociate the 74 deaths from the Vietnam War because the accident occurred during a training mission outside the combat zone. Nixon wanted to lessen the war's mounting death toll, she said.

The sailors' names were never added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Lawmakers and the USS Frank E. Evans Association Inc. have worked to rectify that. The latest attempt occurred late last year when a recommendation to add the names was presented as an attachment to the 2015 Defense Appropriations Bill. The attachment never made it to President Barack Obama's desk.

“It was not included in the final version signed into law,” said Chris Meagher, a spokesman for Rep. Lois Capps, noting that it’s not uncommon for attachments to fall away. “So we have to start the process over.”

That could take shape in a number of ways, he said, such as adding the names through a standalone bill or as part of the 2016 Defense Appropriations Bill.

Without a direction to add the names written into law, the Department of Defense will not recognize it.

“We take congressional interest very seriously, but our policy is that casualties that occur as a result of training incidents are not eligible for induction on the Vietnam wall,” according to Department of Defense press office spokesman Nate Christensen.

Meanwhile, last month 21 names of the Frank E. Evans sailors from California were added to the state's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento.

"Sacramento did what D.C. is ignoring," Fred Kerr said.

Kerr attended the unveiling with his family and hundreds of others on March 29; he called the trip “a surreal moment in time.”

"When I walked up to the wall it was bittersweet for me as we have worked for recognition for these guys for years,” Kerr said.

The tribute “sends a powerful message to Washington to get their act in gear and finish the job on the wall there,” he added.

In December, Capps presented the Kerr family, in Jim Kerr’s name, honors never received: a National Defense Service Medal, two Navy Unit Commendation ribbon pins, and two Gold Star lapel buttons reserved for family members of fallen veterans.

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