'Those are not names. Those are people.' ---- Forrest Frields, VFW Commander
Once they have found their loved one's name among the more than 58,000 printed on the model of the Vietnam War Memorial, the first thing most people do is reach out and touch it.
They run their fingers across the name. They stare at it. They stand a few feet back from the 250-foot-long wall and think about it.
"It's hard not to touch it," said Virginia Gallo, 39, of North Hollywood, who had two friends whose names were listed. "I don't know why."
Gallo and her husband, Bob, were among more than 1,000 people Sunday at Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park and Mortuary in Westlake Village, filing past a half-scale model of the Washington, D.C., memorial. A dedication ceremony kicked off the display; the model will be on view 24 hours a day until Sunday.
The opening ceremony included a Navy honor guard, an 18-gun salute and a fly-by of military aircraft in the missing man formation, which lacks one plane. More than 1,000 U.S. flags flapped in the wind that swept across the cemetery grounds. Local officials read speeches and proclamations. The 40th Infantry Band played military music. And at the wall, people stood and solemnly stared at the names, saying nothing.
"It's like they're here, right now," Bob Gallo, 41, said.
Forrest Frields, commander of the Conejo Valley post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, agreed, saying, "Those are not names. Those are people." He said the visitors "touch them, and they talk to them, and they leave them messages." The VFW shared the $2,500 cost of renting the memorial model with the cemetery and the city of Thousand Oaks.
Made of acrylic plastic, the model has been displayed in numerous states since it was built two years ago by Vietnam Combat Veterans Limited, a nonprofit group based in San Jose.
Frields said he arranged to bring the model to Westlake Village after being awed by the way people reacted to it in Ventura a year ago.
Sunday, it evoked tears in many visitors. Susan Ward, for instance, had been told that her childhood friend, Michael Vinassa, was killed when he leaped on a grenade to save others.
"I just wish there was some way that I could . . . thank him," said Ward, 40, of Agoura.
Another soldier named on the memorial, Eugene Ashley Jr., was a Medal of Honor winner, said his wartime buddy, Richard Valero. Valero, 38, of Ventura had not visited the actual memorial in Washington, D.C., and was "afraid to come" to the Westlake Village cemetery, he said, "because I want to forget."
Valero added, "I'm afraid it might do the opposite. I just feel that it was something I had to do. . . . I
needed to let this individual know that I still care."
It was Albert Quezada's first time, as well.
Quezada, 41, of Simi Valley, brought the names of four wartime comrades whose fates had been unknown to him until Sunday.
One by one, he looked them up in an alphabetical directory of the names on the model.
"I had my fears about finding them there," Quezada said.
They were there, all four of them.