AMHERST — Just as brothers Sean and Brian Byrne settled into bed on St. Patrick’s Day 40 years ago, someone rapped on the door of their Sheffield Township home.
“Mom screamed,” said Brian, who was 19 at the time. “She knew who it was.”
He and Sean, then 14, rushed to the door. Two military men stood outside, but there was little to say. The oldest of the Byrne family’s four brothers — J. Patrick Byrne, 22 — was dead, killed in action on March 8, 1967, from shrapnel wounds suffered in the Vietnam War.
On Saturday, the Byrnes and hundreds more like them — relatives and friends of the 98 Lorain County soldiers killed in Vietnam — had the final say.
“He was the oldest of four boys,” Brian Byrne said, his eyes watering as two nearby buglers finished playing taps. “He taught us to be a man, to believe in yourself.”
Saturday morning, roughly 2,500 people gathered on Amherst’s North Lake Street to show they, too, believed in the 98 Lorain County men who died in Vietnam.
The unveiling of the Lorain County Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Saturday was rife with tearful testimonies and approving nods from dozens of veterans, some from nearby and some who traveled from California, Louisiana, Idaho, Oregon and surrounding states. Police estimated upwards of 2,000 people were at the event, while organizers estimated the number closer to 3,000.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Don Attie, a Vietnam veteran who spent the past five years leading a committee of volunteers in creating the memorial. “It’s amazing the amount of people who showed up, and how many lives this has touched.
“Hopefully this brings some type of closure, relief and healing,” Attie said.
Indeed, memorial committee member Dave Spanski said it was Attie’s dogged commitment that made the memorial a reality.
“Once in a fella’s lifetime, you run across an unusual fella,” Spanski said of Attie. “His driving force — I don’t know where it comes from.”
As members of the dead soldiers’ families solemnly approached the memorial’s black-granite centerpiece on Saturday — laying flowers, pictures, even a pair of oil-black boots at its base — it was clear what Attie had been after all along.
Tears rolled down the faces of mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles of the 98 men — some boys, really — whose lives were abbreviated by war but bronzed in sacrifice.
“This was long overdue,” said Patti Jones, crying softly. “I just don’t know what else to say. It was so long overdue.”
Jones’ brother-in-law, Wellington native Davis Jones, was killed in Vietnam on Nov. 2, 1967. His twin brother, David, was at the ceremony, as were two of Davis Jones’ former comrades: Richard Pierce, 60, who was with him in Vietnam when he died, and Ross Sword, 59, who accompanied Davis Jones’ body home from Vietnam.
“This has been a long time coming,” said David Jones. “I still think about him every day for the past 40 years.”
The granite and bronze memorial was uncovered only after a mesmerizing introduction: A C-130 cargo plane approached from the west, flying a few hundred feet above before tipping a wing and disappearing in a deafening drone.
A voice crackled over the loudspeaker, narrating as 20 re-enactors in authentic Vietnam War military garb emerged from the bushes. The men, from the Grafton-based group Soldiers of History, passed a Huey helicopter and crept toward the memorial, machine guns at the ready.
Committee members then pulled an avocado-green parachute off the memorial. Minutes later, a 21-gun salute cracked through the air.
“That was something,” said Michael McBride, 57, a Vietnam veteran who drove from Wood County to witness the event. “It takes you back.”
McBride, a former machine gunner, was using a cane to get around, holding it in his good hand, since the other was mangled by a bullet in Vietnam.
“They taught you to suppress your emotions, show no grief, never cry,” McBride said of his war experience. “You had to do your job.”
Decades later, McBride still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the old memories remain.
“They didn’t give you back your emotions when you came back,” McBride said. “The memories are so vivid now — like snapping a picture and pulling it up in your mind.”
On Saturday, more of those long-hidden emotions emerged, as the veterans, relatives, community members and others paid tribute to Lorain County’s men who were killed in a country some 13,000 miles from home.
The memorial serves a three-fold purpose, Attie said: Memorialize the county’s men who were killed in Vietnam, as well as offer human interest and educational perspectives.
Sean Byrne’s daughter, Trisha — the niece of Patrick Byrne — said the educational aspect is most pertinent these days.
“They mentioned something about this being educational,” Trisha said. “That’s what’s important — learning from this.”
Contact Shawn Foucher at 329-7197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.