By Benjamin Cohn
Buncombe County – A three-year journey culminated last month when local Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 124 installed, in the courtyard of Asheville’s Charles George VA Medical Center, a permanent home for the nearly 200 Western North Carolina service members lost in the Vietnam War.
Army veteran and chapter representative Carroll “Spider” Trantham detailed for the Tribune the arduous process of canonizing those who gave their lives for their country.
“It certainly has been a long road. It started three years ago this month,” Trantham began. “The Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 124 brought the traveling wall to Asheville, and we were allowed to set it up at the Harley Davidson dealer in Swannanoa, in their back lot. We pulled it out of the trailer, we set it up, we manned it for 24 hours a day, for about six days.
“We had a lot of schoolchildren come, answered a lot of questions from them. Helped people find names during those six days, and after the sixth day we tore it down, put it back in the trailer and it went to its next destination.”
As the group of veterans aged, though, their physical strength began to decline. They wouldn’t possess the energy to build and tear down a traveling replica of the monument in DC much longer. A change had to be made. Trantham told the Tribune Chapter 124’s solution.
“The November meeting of that year, one of the members stood up and said ‘gentleman, we’re too old to be doing this. We can’t do it much longer.’ From that, the idea came for a monument. It’s been two and a half years in the works, finding somebody, finding a place. We came up with the idea, everybody was satisfied. We found somebody that could do it, and the process started. Then we were faced with the problem of ‘Where are we going to put it?’
Chapter 124 faced the difficult task of procuring and protecting the names of the 164 Western North Carolina veterans selected, Trantham explained.
“The 164 names are very important, and you certainly don’t want them to be out somewhere where somebody can vandalize [them]. We thought about uptown, but then that was kinda sketchy, ”due to graffiti,” that kind of thing. This was really special. We thought the VA would be a fine place to put it. Where we wanted it was right out in a circle out in front. That’s where we wanted to put it. We have two or three people who volunteer at the VA hospital, and they set up a meeting with all the people who were involved, and we had some naysayers of course outside the group who said ‘Nah, you’ll never get that piece of property.’ We presented it and they liked the idea of the monument, and they said ‘Well, where would you like to put it?’ and we said, ‘We’d love to put it right there in that circle.’”
The hospital’s reaction shocked the local veteran’s group.
“‘Fine.’ And our mouths dropped. Just that simple. From that point, they [the maintenance department] made the drawings, they poured the concrete, they put the lights in. When it came that day, every one of those maintenance men were there to see it [the monument] come off the truck. They’ve got a vested interest in this as well as we do.”
The project cost $20,000 and was paid for by the chapter and by donations from the community, including members of the North Buncombe community and businesses like Rodney’s Auto in Weaverville, who are big supporters of such efforts.
“We still have veterans from the Vietnam era who cannot or will not go to DC for bunches of different reasons. At about two or three o’clock in the morning on the traveling wall, they [veterans] come. They’ll do the same thing at the VA. They’ll come when nobody else is there.”
Trantham says he and the other members of chapter 124 were “extremely proud to have done this, because we’re getting older. We’re dying off now quicker than the WWII vets were. We wanted to leave a legacy.”