One phrase has resonated through the growing effort to salute Carlisle High School alumni who are Vietnam War veterans.
“It’s long overdue,” Kevin Wagner said. “That’s the phrase I keep hearing over and over again.”
A history teacher and social studies program chair, Wagner wants to create a commemorative plaque listing the name, year graduated and service branch of each school attendee or graduate who served in Southeast Asia during the war.
As of last week, he has compiled information on 102 people, including a few men who attended or graduated prior to the actual war years but made careers or long-term enlistments out of their military service.
Wagner wants as complete a list as possible for a bronze or cast iron plaque that would be mounted in the main hallway of the McGowan building, where it would be visible to people attending events. The public has until March 31 to call Wagner at 717-240-6800, ext. 26132, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His tribute to Vietnam veterans will include a memorial to nine graduates who were killed in action. Cherry wood flag cases and flags have already been purchased. The names of each of the fallen have been etched into the glass. Underneath each case will be a framed short biography and photograph of the person.
The plaque and memorial will be funded by donations from the public. The deadline for making a donation is the same for providing a name. People should use the same phone number or email address.
“The response by the community-at-large has just been overwhelming and impressive,” Wagner said. “I personally never expected it to be this overwhelming. It makes one feel good. It’s not just the veterans that see the worthiness of this recognition, but the young people.”
Since word of this project surfaced in late December, Wagner has seen his list of known veterans grow from about 33 to 102 names, and the donations increase from about $600 to $3,500, including a $1,000 pledge from the Bison Foundation of the Carlisle Area School District.
At one point, the response was so enthusiastic that Wagner was receiving several names daily over a period of two to three weeks. He verified each name against the high school yearbooks for 1960 to 1975 and the commencement programs for each graduation ceremony. The vast majority of the 102 individuals listed graduated before entering the service. Five did not graduate and two received GEDs after leaving high school, Wagner said.
The Carlisle High School Class of 1967 has been particularly active in the effort to develop the Vietnam Wall of Honor, Wagner said. On Feb. 27, three members of that class presented the school with a $1,000 check from VFW Post 7343 in Mount Holly Springs. Local VFW and American Legion posts, along with Rotary Club members, have been instrumental in getting the word out on the project.
If everything goes according to plan, there will be a public ceremony dedicating the memorial and plaque either the Friday or Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, May 25 or 26.
Carlisle Area School District students will be involved in the ceremony, and the plan is to bring in veterans to show students how to properly fold the flags that will be placed in the memorial cases for the nine fallen alumni.
“Now more than ever, it is a good time to talk about the war,” Wagner said. “There is not the negativity of the era in which the war occurred. A lot of veterans are willing to share.”
Still, Wagner has received word through the channels of local Vietnam veterans who would rather remain anonymous and not have their names on the commemorative plaque.
Though Wagner did not talk to them directly, the input he has been receiving is those particular veterans are not proud of what the United States did in Vietnam so they would rather not be involved. “I completely respect that,” Wagner said.
“My biggest fear is there are names that are left out,” he said. “But as I tell my students, ‘History is imperfect. There is always a piece that is missing. You will never get it perfect or get it right.’”
The idea for this project grew out of a growing fascination with the Vietnam War that has developed in this country over the past year or two, Wagner said. He mentioned in particular the Ken Burns documentary series on the war that aired on PBS last September.
Along with that, Wagner noticed that while memorials exist in Carlisle High School for military veterans, there was nothing substantial for Vietnam War veterans. The idea to pay them tribute solidified in 2017 after Wagner attended the annual teachers’ conference of the Pennsylvania Council for the Social Studies.
The conference offers educators professional development opportunities including workshops on best practices, teaching methods and curriculum ideas. There Wagner learned of a school near Philadelphia that offered a yearlong project for high school students interesting in researching graduates who served in Vietnam.