‘They Were My Age:’ Students Find Photos, Stories of Soldiers Killed in Vietnam
Journalism students research lives, unearth photos of Vietnam vets
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‘They were my age.’
Milwaukee journalism students research lives, unearth photos of Vietnam dead

A team of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee journalism students took on an unusual research project this spring – helping find the missing photos and stories of Wisconsin soldiers killed in Vietnam. With help from other volunteers, they succeeded in finding the final 64 missing photos of Wisconsin soldiers by Memorial Day Weekend.

Their efforts were part of the Faces Never Forgotten project, a national effort to find approximately 17,300 missing photos for a digital Wall of Faces planned for the new Vietnam veterans Education Center at The Wall in Washington, D.C. Organizers hope that photos will be found to accompany all 58,300 names listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

(The photos found so far are online at http://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces) 
The Wisconsin project was completed just befoCrre Memorial Day when relatives confirmed that an old Milwaukee North Division High School yearbook photo showed Willie Bedford, the final image missing of the 1,161 Wisconsin service members who died in Vietnam.
(Read student Rachel Maidl’s account of her search for the last image here: http://go.uwm.edu/1Ew04Il)
With that confirmation, Wisconsin became the sixth state, and largest so far, to collect photos of all its service members killed in Vietnam. 
“The Wisconsin effort has been by far the most efficient and the most successful,” said George DeCastro, coordinator of the Faces Never Forgotten Program. “The high level of coordination and cooperation between all parties involved was astounding. And, of course, your students and all of the other volunteers are the ones who actually got it done.”
Andrew Johnson, publisher of the Dodge County Pionier in Mayville, Wisconsin, spearheaded Faces Never Forgotten in Wisconsin. Jessica McBride, senior journalism lecturer at UWM, got her JAMS 320: Integrated Reporting classes involved after meeting Johnson in February 2015.

‘Stories that matter’
“I thought it was an excellent way to teach basic research and storytelling skills, as well as the role the media can play in communities,” said McBride. “I want students to work on stories that matter. It’s moving how they embraced this cause.”

UWM, which enrolls more veterans than any other university in the state, was also a natural fit for the project. When the journalism class got involved in February 2015, 64 Wisconsin soldiers’ photos were missing. Even after the semester ended in mid-May, McBride and several students continued their search for the remaining photos with the help of other volunteer researchers.

North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico and Wyoming also have located all the missing photos, and Iowa is down to one missing, according to DeCastro.

Johnson had two very personal reasons for getting involved. The Education Center at The Wall also will project photos of the nearly 8,000 service members killed in action since Sept. 11. One of those soldiers is Johnson’s son, U.S. Army 1st Lt. David Johnson, who was killed in Afghanistan in January 2012. Andrew Johnson says Vietnam veterans, like those in the Patriot Guard, have been supportive of his family as they mourned David’s death. Patriot Guard members helped lead his son’s funeral procession and accompanied Lt. Johnson’s casket up until his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Photos are so important in making a person ‘real,’” Johnson explains, adding that there are few photos of many of the soldiers who fought in the unpopular Vietnam War. Further compounding the problem is the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records center that destroyed approximately 16-18 million official military personnel files. When Johnson first got involved in the project, 400 photos from Wisconsin were missing.

Journalism students at UWM pored over cemetery records, checked phone directories and yearbooks, looked through veteran memorial sites and tracked down surviving family and friends any way they could – email, telephone, the U.S. Postal Service and in-person. Along the way, they got help from other volunteers: a veteran, a retired newspaper editor, a writer, a historical researcher, teachers and school officials who searched records and yearbooks, and a leader of the Wisconsin Association of Black Genealogists, who was also a UWM student.

Mourning sons, remembering friends
The research trail was often long and difficult. Senior Justin Skubal’s soldier, Thomas Shaw, had left a widow, but she and Shaw’s mother had both remarried and tracking stepsiblings was challenging. Fellow senior Jonathan Powell agreed: “It’s difficult to dig up information when people remarry, and sometimes families seem to fall apart after a death.”

The project gave the students new insights into the sacrifices these and other soldiers had made. Skubal said he understands better why his stepfather, a Vietnam veteran, awoke some mornings startled and shaking

Students heard stories from families about the devastating impact of their losses; fellow soldiers told them details of the battles and seeing their buddies die.
“This was way more than a class assignment,” says Powell. Echoing Johnson, he adds, “A soldier never dies unless he’s forgotten.”

“When we started this project, I thought about these Vietnam soldiers as old men, but they were my age, or my brother’s age,” says UWM junior Amanda Porter, who tracked down Sgt. Nathaniel Merriweather’s story and photo through cemetery records, help from the mayor of the small Tennessee town where Merriweather is buried, and an army buddy who remembered him. Touching an obituary photo of Merriweather on her computer screen, she said: “It gave me a warm feeling, but really sad. I’m grateful that they are going to be remembered and I was part of that.”

McBride, Johnson and the students were impressed by all those who have helped.

“This is a community effort. That’s what stands out to me,” McBride wrote in a May 20 story for “OnMilwaukee.com.”

“Younger generations and old have come together to find these. Students and veterans. Black, Latino, American Indian and white. Republican and Democrat. This is a community effort. And, to me, that means this exemplifies Wisconsin at its finest.”