Politics & Government

California launches controversial effort to add more names to Vietnam Veterans Memorial

When he was a boy back in Oregon – before his mother remarried and brought him to West Sacramento – Gregory Keith Hodson put together model airplanes, and his father suspended them on fishing line over his bed. At night, Greg watched the planes floating gracefully above him, and he dreamed of flying.

At age 21, as a Navy pilot, he died when the S-2F tracking plane he was helping land on the deck of the USS Kearsarge plunged off the edge of the carrier into the South China Sea, just outside Vietnamese waters. It was Oct. 2, 1964, two months after events in the Gulf of Tonkin set in motion what was to become more than a decade of American combat in Vietnam. Hodson’s family always has considered him a casualty of the Vietnam War. But the Department of Defense doesn’t agree, because he didn’t die in the war zone.

Lt. j.g. Gregory Hodson is not included among the 58,286 Americans whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., or among the 5,622 deceased California service members honored on the black granite panels of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento’s Capitol Park.

“To me, it’s an insult that they wouldn’t put Greg on the list,” said Bill Spurgin, a Sacramento real estate agent who graduated from West Sacramento’s James Marshall High School with Hodson.

That could change under a law enacted a year ago requiring the California Department of Veterans Affairs to add names to the California memorial each year through 2020. Potentially included on the new list will be service members left off inadvertently, as well as those like Hodson whose deaths were ruled ineligible on narrow technical grounds. More controversially, veterans who died decades after the war from documented Agent Orange-related illnesses or suicides tied to post-traumatic stress disorder also will be considered for inclusion.

“We’re just starting on the process,” said Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, who authored the legislation with the support of California veterans groups. “We’re trying to accommodate not only those who died in the line of duty but those who died later because of their duty. We want to acknowledge that sacrifice.”

A CalVets committee that is compiling and reviewing those names is scheduled to meet Tuesday.

Frazier’s uncle, Rick Neal, died at age 53 in 1997 of cancer that resulted from his exposure to Agent Orange as a soldier in Vietnam. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs lists 14 illnesses – including several cancers, Type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease – that have been linked with Agent Orange, which was widely used as a chemical defoliant in Vietnam.

But Zack Earp, who helped raise funds to build the California memorial when he was state president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, doesn’t like the idea of noncombat deaths being included. At 19, he was severely wounded in Vietnam when he stepped on a small mine. At 63, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s as a result of Agent Orange exposure. Now, at 66, he also has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and coronary artery disease, both presumed to be related to his Vietnam service.

“I would not want my sons to have my name added to the wall for Agent Orange diseases,” said Earp, who lives in Riverside. “Personally, for me, I question that.

“The memorial is very sacred ground. The original intent was to honor those killed in action. In some ways, this lessens the integrity of the memorial.”

Frazier said he recognizes the difference: He thinks the names of those killed in the line of duty could be engraved in the California memorial wall itself, in the Addendum section of the panels, while the names of those who died years later of service-related illnesses could be listed on a new plaque or kiosk as part of the memorial.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “We’re thinking of how to honor veterans.”

The national memorial, dedicated in 1982, includes combat-related deaths culled from Department of Defense casualty lists – and specifically excludes the names of people who died from Agent Orange exposure or PTSD-related suicides. Names are added by the military when the remains of those previously listed as missing in action are identified or when a veteran dies of complications of combat injuries, according to www.thewall-usa.com.

The California memorial, which opened in 1988, also drew its names directly from Department of Defense lists of those killed in action.

“As Vietnam veterans, we wanted to add more names, but we did not want to just blindly follow what the military services said,” said Pete Conaty, a veterans group lobbyist who serves as adviser to the CalVets Vietnam memorial name committee.

“It’s up to the commission to vote on whether names are added or not. I’m very careful in what I say, but I’m of the opinion, when in doubt, add names.”

Now 70, Bill Spurgin was in the Army when his mother sent him an article about the death of his tall, shy friend from around the corner in West Sacramento, who liked to read and helped Spurgin with his homework. Gregory Hodson was killed along with another pilot, Lt. Harold S. Roach Jr. of Coronado, and Horace E. Rainey, an aviation technician from Alabama.

Spurgin was upset when he learned that Hodson had been excluded from both the California and national Vietnam memorials. So he campaigned for 20 years for him to be remembered. Because of his efforts, a paving stone in Hodson’s name was added in 2011 as part of the California Veterans Memorial, which honors all California veterans from recent wars and is located across Capitol Park from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Not long ago, Alice Hodson, Gregory’s half sister, visited Sacramento and viewed the stone honoring her brother’s sacrifice. She was in her first year of high school in Oregon when he was killed, and she remembers naval officers coming to the house to notify her father.

“It was extremely hard on my parents, because the bodies were never recovered,” said Hodson, 62, who lives in Tillamook, Ore. “It wasn’t quite real, you know. Remember when they started releasing POWs from Vietnam? My parents were glued to the television set because there might have been some mistake.

“There was no place to go to say, ‘This is where he lies.’ He was just gone. Just gone. It did not seem to matter to anybody.”

After friends visited the national Vietnam wall in Washington in the 1980s, they came home and told her that Gregory’s name wasn’t among the lists of those who had given their lives for their country. Hodson began writing letters to the Department of Defense, requesting information.

“I got this snarky response,” she said. “On my dad’s birthday and Greg’s birthday, I’d write letters, and every time, I was pretty much told, ‘Shut up and go away.’ It was horrific.”

It was only by chance, after a son Googled her brother’s name, that she learned about the paving stone honoring him. For decades, even as she fought to get his name engraved on the national wall, she wasn’t aware of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the exclusion of Greg’s name. And she wasn’t aware that the newly formed CalVets name committee has an item on its meeting agenda to consider adding her brother’s name to the memorial, at long last.

“I think it’s time,” she said. “I know they haven’t decided yet. But ‘Well, maybe’ is a whole lot better answer than, ‘Hell, no.’ ”