LAFAYETTE — Army Capt. Walter Alvin Souther was 24 years old when he died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam on June 24, 1968.
“His craft went down in a river, but we never learned why,” said his sister Marilyn Souther Lynch.
Her brother is one of the 884 Louisiana veterans memorialized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Lynch hasn’t been able to make the visit to the memorial in D.C. yet, but on Thursday, it came to her.
“He’s right there,” she said, pointing to the half-scale replica of the memorial that holds the 58,272 names of the veterans who died in the Vietnam War — “55 West and line 31.”
The numbers referred to the location of where Souther’s name is etched into the replica that is called “The Wall That Heals.” The traveling exhibit is affiliated with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the organization created by Congress for the construction of the memorial. The exhibit was created to bring the Wall to communities across the country.
It will be in Lafayette and available for viewing 24 hours a day until 8 a.m. Monday at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens. During that time, the names of each person who died will be read aloud by volunteers.
The traveling replica also provides the opportunity for deceased veterans’ family members to upload photos and personal histories of their loved ones for the memorial’s database.
Pictures are available for only about 21,000 of the dead and of the state’s 884 veterans, pictures are available for only 121 of them, said Tom Grote, a Vietnam veteran and member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, who helped organize the exhibit’s journey to Lafayette.
“Help us put a face to this wall,” he appealed to family and fellow veterans who may have photographs to share.
The wall itself brings back images of friends lost for Preston Carmon, 71, of Palmetto. He’s visited the wall in Washington and ventured to see similar replicas when they’ve been in the area.
“It always brings back memories of people. I’ve got friends on the wall,” he said.
Carmon was in Vietnam for 16 months until illness sent him home for a two-year hospital stay because of his exposure to Agent Orange. He said he thinks the replica lives up to its name.
“It does help you heal,” he said before Thursday’s ceremony. “I’m glad to see a lot of people coming out.”
The first time that Tina Jumonville visited the wall in Washington, “I fell apart,” she said.
“It was very emotional. Like this wall, it was a healing experience,” she said.
During Thursday’s opening ceremony for the exhibit, Jumonville shared a story of one of the veterans on the wall: her father, Army Sgt. James E. Thompson of the 101st Airborne Division, who died on Dec. 18, 1965. Jumonville was only 2 years old.
She told the crowd she was blessed to have family members who didn’t glorify her father’s memory, but offered her a full picture of his strengths and faults.
And it’s a portrait of his strength that continues to carry her through her life. During his paratrooper training at Fort Bragg, her father and other trainees fell from a training tower. One of the men died and her father was badly injured. Though he was offered a discharge, he refused and when he was medically cleared, returned to training.
“He got back on that tower,” she told the crowd. “Every time I come across a challenge, I figure if my dad can get back on that tower, I can do anything.”
Her visit to the memorial and its replica was a source of healing.
“It’s to know you’re not alone,” she said. “You can share experiences, honor them and just knowing that you have shoulders to cry on and you’re not alone.”
“There’s no way to thank all of our veterans. He, along with every veteran who has ever served, has taught me the virtues of pride, honor and courage,” Jumonville said.
The wall symbolizes sacrifices made by those who died in Vietnam, but also all veterans, whose bodies continue to fight what they endured, Grote said.
“In the Vietnam War, more than 2.7 million men served and only 850,000 of us are still alive,” he said. “We’re dying at a rate of 390 a day. A lot of that’s directly attributed to the effects of Agent Orange.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs has a mobile center at the site to assist veterans and deceased veterans family members with any questions or counseling needs.