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Vietnam veterans remember fallen friends at traveling memorial in Riverview

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that Richard Ernest was referring to Afghanistan in his quotes.

Ron Squires, 74, volunteered to help when a replica of Washington, D.C.'s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was displayed in Clinton Township last week. 

The St. Clair Shores veteran felt drawn to visit again when the Wall that Heals came to Riverview, where it could be viewed until 2 p.m. Sunday at Young Patriots Park. 

Ron Squires, 74, of St. Clair Shores, knew 72 of the servicemen whose names are memorialized on the Wall of Healing.

"I have 72 friends on that wall," he said. "I'm totally drawn to this every time it's in town, or around town. I have to make at least one visit." 

Squires brought his wife of 52 years, Mary Squires, whom he married two months before he was drafted in November 1968. Together they have four daughters, six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

Alberto Sanchez of Melvindale, left, with the help of fiancee Kelli Norton, uses pencil and paper to make a rubbing of the name of his dad's cousin, Jose L. Sanchez, who died in Vietnam on June 1, 1969.

Only the first child would would have been born if Squires hadn't survived a grenade attack on Valentine's Day 1970, Mary noted. 

"All of the guys that were with him died," Mary said. "He was the guy who was closest to the grenade who lived." 

At a trailer near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial replica, visitors are given details about the actual memorial in Washington, D.C., as well as other facts about the Vietnam War.

The memorial that travels the country is a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that stands in Washington, D.C., in honor and recognition of the men and women who sacrificed their lives in the Vietnam war.

The names of 58,000 men and women are inscribed on a wall of black granite.  

Rob Lakomy of Wyandotte holds the hand of his granddaughter, October Liska, as they look over a three-quarter scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021 in Riverview, Michigan.

Julianna Blaylock, an outreach manager with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund who travels across the country with the display, said "thousands" of people have visited since the wall was escorted to Young Patriots Park with a cadre of police motorcycles and other fanfare on Tuesday.

"We've seen thousands of visitors, especially at night" said Blaylock. "It's really beautiful when it's lit up."

Vietnam veteran Joe Conrad, 80, of Flat Rock, with his son-in-law Richard Ernest, 51, an Iraq veteran from Brownstown, visited the Memorial in Riverview on Saturday.

Joe Conrad, 80, of Flat Rock, visited the wall with his wife, Pat, 73. His daughter, Deborah, and son-in-law, Richard Ernest, both 51, also came along. 

Conrad, who served in Vietnam in 1966 as a radio operator, said it was "emotional" to see the wall. 

"There was 6,000 killed in 1966," Conrad said, as his voiced cracked. "I get very emotional looking at all that. It's a lot to take in." 

Ernest, his son-in-law, served 25 years in the military, and said viewing the wall was also emotional for him. The Brownstown resident is an Iraq combat veteran.

Asked about the Taliban's sweep across Afghanistan this week as the U.S. has pulled its forces out of the country, Ernest said the situation there is similar to what happened in Vietnam — another protracted conflict that did not end in victory for America. 

Dan Beazley of Northville said he was "moved by the Lord" to carry a crucifix and pay his respects at the sight of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial replica.

"We spent 20 years over there (in Afghanistan) and look what happened. Lots of people lost their lives, and it all went right back to where it was," Ernest said.

"Another week (in Afghanistan) and the Taliban will have taken over the whole country," he said. "We made life better for a little while, but it will be right back to where it was."

Twitter: @kbouffardDN

Visitors walk and relax as they look over a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021 at Young Patriots Park in Riverview, Michigan.