SIDNEY – As one of several events planned in Sidney to celebrate the city’s bicentennial this year, the Shelby County Historical Society has arranged for a return exhibit here of the AVTT-TWF Traveling Wall.
The AVTT-TWF Traveling Wall is a replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. The society exhibited the wall in Sidney in 2010 and 2015. This year, it will be erected in Custenborder Park and open to the public, May 14-17.
In addition, there will be a field of crosses installed near the wall. The crosses will bear military dog tags with the names of the over 7,000 American servicemen and women who have died in service to their country since the Vietnam War.
The name of Steve O’Meara, of rural Sidney, will not be on one of the dog tags. He made it back from Iraq.
O’Meara served full time in the Air Force from 1983 to 1987 and then continued as a reservist through 2008. He survived two deployments to Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and will retire from the Sidney Fire Department in April.
“I started out as a fireman and worked my way up (in the Air Force),” he said. “That’s the job I picked when I signed up.”
He served as a firefighter, crew chief, assistant crew chief, training assistant, chief of operations, deputy chief and fire chief as he climbed the ranks, first at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and then at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Fairborn.
He was the fire chief on Kirkuk Air Base in Iraq when he earned a Bronze Star.
“Rocket attacks were fairly common,” he said recently, “so we would have structural fires, vehicle accidents. They didn’t have electrical codes, so there was a large amount of electrical fires in the buildings.”
Those “routine” fires were not what got him an award, however.
It was a massive attack of the munitions store on the base that did that.
Videos of the incident can be found on You Tube. Viewers should know that the soldiers who photographed the proceedings were not careful about their use of salty language.
When it happened, it was the largest strike on munitions up to that time.
“Kirkuk is about 100 miles north of Bagdad, and there are lots of green grass and trees there,” O’Meara said. “Except that when it didn’t rain, all that grass was dry.
“The Army would bring in munitions (they had captured from enemy forces); they unloaded them into piles in the grass. The rockets hit the ammo and that set the grass on fire.”
The fire spread quickly and other munitions piles exploded. O’Meara heard the explosions and knew he had to keep the 3,000 people on the base safe. The base was situated right next to the town of Kirkuk, and no one wanted the fire to spread to the town, either.
Because the strike was about a mile from the main base, most of the people were not in danger. O’Meara and his team of firefighters made sure others were in bunkers and then worked to contain the blaze.
“Fuel was stored in rubber membrane bladders,” the chief said. He didn’t want the flames to reach them.
“I moved my assets around (to prevent that), all the while working under the presumption that the enemy could have been using chemical weapons,” he added. He moved his command post three times and got a clear picture of the enormity of the problem only when he went to the top of the command tower.
Americans and their Iraqi partners battled the blaze for 20 hours and then allowed it to burn itself out. It smoldered for days. The only casualty was a broken ankle suffered by one man.
The attack took place on the first day of O’Meara’s second tour to the Middle East.
“It was the welcome back party,” he laughed.
During quieter times there, O’Meara developed an inspection program to quell the spate of building fires caused by electrical problems. He also instituted a training program that gave Iraqis basic first aid, firefighting and EMS skills.
But he missed some important moments back home.
One of his sons got a driver’s license during O’Meara’s absence.
“One thing that gets lost is, when someone goes overseas, people back here are paying a price,” the 55-year-old father of two said. “Spouses, kids, moms and dads – I’m just a single player in this thing, but there’s a village behind me that has to take care of things: family, friends. There are a lot more moving parts behind that you don’t see.”
That’s why he shared his story to promote the exhibition of the memorial wall and the field of crosses.
“We have to honor the ones that came before us. They set the groundwork. So you never forget the human cost involved,” he said.
“It’s important to these men (the committee who are coordinating the exhibits) that people know that freedom comes at a terrible price,” said Shelby County Historical Society Director Tilda Phlipot.
“The first time we brought the wall in, it was helping (Vietnam) veterans heal, helping them understand that people today really appreciate what they did for us. It was hard to get enough vets to help put up the wall and man it,” she said.
When it returned in 2015, the veterans were eager to assist.
“It was a glorious sight to see,” Phlipot said. “Now, it’s brought forward, but the battle continues. It was the Vietnam vets’ idea to create a field of crosses.”
Phlipot continued, “The committee is in need of volunteers from guarding the wall to parking cars. We have a job for anyone who wants to help. Though the city of Sidney sponsored the cost of the wall, every good organizer they know the cost of the main attraction is just a small cost in a week-long event. The committee is very thankful that the Sidney Visitor’s Bureau, Veterans Service Agency and the Vets to DC have stepped up to financially support but we have not met our budget goal so please consider making a contribution.”
For information about the exhibits, call the society at 937-498-1653.