Tim Williams, the son of late Army Spc. James E. Williams, said his father often described the Vietnam War as “the war that just keeps on giving.”
Williams’ father, who received two purple hearts during his service in Vietnam, died this year from an illness related to Agent Orange, the highly toxic herbicide used during the war to clear trees and plants that has been linked to diseases found in people who have had contact with it.
Three names, including Williams, were recently added to the more than 5,600 etched into the granite walls of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Capitol Park. A ceremony held Saturday unveiled the names as part of the memorial’s 30th anniversary.
The memorial stands as tribute to the Californians who were either killed or are missing in action, as well as those whose deaths were determined to be service-connected. Ten percent of those who died in Vietnam were from California, the most from any state.
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“There almost 620,000 Vietnam hero veterans still residing in California – no memorial could be large enough to recognize them all by name,” said Vito Imbasciani, secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. “Today, we focus our attention on these three men and on the thousands of Vietnam veterans, like those here today, who have never stopped serving their country, stopped fight fighting for the others with whom they served.”
Air Force Master Sgt. William A. Gerg’s son described him as a loving and happy man who didn’t regret serving in Vietnam.
“He was all business in his boots. He would do it all over again,” William Gerg said of his father, who died in 2009 of cancer linked to Agent Orange. “He loved his country.”
Only one name added at the ceremony was killed in action. Gregory K. Zeller, a cryptologist for the Navy, died in a plane crash in the South China Sea. The Pasadena native was 23 years old and had ambitions of becoming a pastor once he finished college.
Every year by Nov. 1, the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial Honor Committee must compile a list of veterans who either died in Vietnam or died later for reasons connected to their time serving there.
“Unfortunately, Vietnam killed a lot of us but it took a long time for it to work, so for every name on that wall there’s probably twenty names, or ten names anyway, that died of Agent Orange, PTSD, suicide, which is really the same thing, or any combination of the above,” said John P. Rowan, national president and CEO of Vietnam Veterans of America, during the ceremony.
This memorial’s primary purpose is to remind people of servicemembers’ sacrifice, said Mark Hite, a marine staff sergeant who served two tours in Vietnam and is a member of the Marine Corps League in Elk Grove.
“We feel obligated to love our lives in honor of them,” Hite said.
It is also a way for people to understand that these names were people who had families and friends, and were affected by their deaths, Rowan said. He said the memorial’s vast accounting of names also allows future generations to see the impact of war.
Rowan described the memorial as a representation of America. Unlike wars before it, Vietnam did not segregate the soldiers, he said. Everyone fought together, died together.
“This is us. This is America,” Rowan said, gesturing to the names written on the walls.