SIDNEY – For the first time in Shelby County, all the United States servicemen and women who have died since the end of the Vietnam War while serving their country will be memorialized in one place.
And that place will be Custenborder Park in Sidney from May 11 through May 17.
The Shelby County Historical Society will exhibit 1,000 wooden crosses there, each with up to two dog tags, each tag bearing the names of five fallen heroes. In all, 7,493 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will be honored.
The crosses will be “protected” by a ring of American flags, according to Historical Society Director Tilda Phlipot. And the exhibit will accompany a display of the AVTT-TWF Traveling Wall, a replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., as one of the events marking the bicentennial of the city of Sidney.
The idea was inspired by a permanent field of marble crosses in Sunbury, which pay tribute to Ohio’s servicemen who have died in the war on terror since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Sidney exhibit will recognize the fallen from every state from 1975 through February 2020.
“Nothing had been done (for people who died in service) since Vietnam,” said planning committee member Robert Shoffner, of Hardin.
“We decided it was time to honor them,” said fellow committeeman Keith McLain, of Sidney.
The idea has turned into a huge project.
“This whole thing is a lot of good people working together to get this thing done. It’s big. It’s a team effort. It takes a good team,” Shoffner said.
Sharon Mohrbacher, SCHS administrative assistant, collected all the names.
“It was not easy,” she said. “Somebody directed me to a website, militarytimes.com. They started keeping track in 2001, and that was awesome. I had to find other avenues to find names before 2000. It took me three months to find another website.”
Mohrbacher is preparing a locator book that will be at the site. It will be an alphabetical list of the names on the dog tags, noting what branch of the service each person was in, what his or her rank was and on which cross the dog tag is pinned.
Assisting in the name collection were Anne Morrow and Lisa O’Connor, both of Sidney.
Shoffner, McLain, Michael Jones and Cecil Steele, both of Sidney and also on the committee, cut the lumber, which was sold to the society at a discount by Lowe’s. Donations by Shelby County Veterans Services and the Shelby County Vets to DC covered the cost for the crosses and dog tags.
The men spent a period of three days to cut the 1 inch by 2 inch pine boards into 18 inch and 12 inch lengths. The crosses are designed to fit over metal rods, which go into the ground. Buckeye Metal in Piqua donated the rod material, and committee members used equipment at the home of Mark Lee, of Piqua, to cut the rods into the proper lengths.
“It was three to four hours of cutting rods. There was a lot of cutting and grinding,” Shoffner said.
They went to the Upper Valley Career Center to ask if students could help with the painting and assembly.
UVCC Supervisor Roger Voisard put them in touch with Buildings and Grounds Instructor Frank Segreti.
“I’m a veteran of the U.S. Navy Seabees,” Segreti said.
When three Vietnam era veterans asked him if the project was feasible for his students, he wasn’t about to say no.
Six students have been working on the crosses between other projects.
Gabriel Wood, 17, a junior from Houston, is a masonry/plumbing major.
“We drill holes in the part that stands vertical, the top and the bottom,” he said in detailing their work.
The bottom hole is for the stability rod. The top hole will hold a small, American flag.
Students then fastened the cross bars with screws.
“We used a ruler, painted one side, let dry, then did a second coat. Then we have to do a third,” said Hailey Houshel, 18, a senior masonry/plumbing major from Covington.
The students created an assembly line to make the work go faster. It became more than a class assignment to some of them.
“Some young men really took it to heart,” Segreti said. “This is a cross. Someone who gave the ultimate sacrifice will have his name on it.”
He, himself, was not immune to an emotional response.
“Some days, I look at the crosses and think of men I knew in high school who never came home. Veterans are 1 percent of the population of the U.S. now.”
There is talk about the 1 percent wealthiest Americans, he added.
“Veterans aren’t wealthy, but they gave,” he said.
Wood asked to be on the work crew because his grandparents served in Vietnam and his great-grandfather served in World War II.
“I feel like I’m paying homage to them, to thank them for their service,” he said.
Houshel’s brother, Hunter Clark, of Sidney, is in the Air Force right now.
The two students are likely to be among a group from UVCC who will help install the field in the week before it opens.
The layout will be drafted by Allen Bertke, of Choice One Engineering in Sidney. His brother, Jeff Bertke, is on the UVCC faculty and will coordinate the student volunteer effort.
More than anything else, SCHS committee members say, the exhibit is for young people.
“It’s really for the school kids. They’ve got to see this,” McLain said.
“It’s a history lesson,” Jones added.
To spark interest, Jim Moorman, commander of the Sidney American Legion post, has offered to speak to area high school classes about the Vietnam War and what the memorial wall means to him.
“It’s part of history that’s not given its due to be discussed as World War II was,” Moorman said. “I’ve been to the wall in (Washington) D.C., a number of times, and I know the healing effect it has.”
Working on the project has touched everyone involved.
“We want people to realize the sacrifice that’s been given for their freedom,” Shoffner said.
“In looking at every single name that’s on these dog tags, it’s very humbling,” Mohrbacher added. “It’s just in your face how many people gave their lives for our country.”
There are several opportunities for area residents to participate in addition to visiting the exhibit, whose admission will be free.
Volunteers are needed to help set up the field of crosses and the flags that will surround it. People who purchased flags for previous fields of flags sponsored by the historical society can loan their flags on poles to be included. For a $5 donation, they can have a new memorial tag attached to their flag. New flags and poles with memorial or honorary tags and rebar can be purchased for $30.
The installation of the crosses and flags will take place at 3 p.m. May 11.
Motorcyclists are invited to lead the wall into town from Wapakoneta on May 13.
Volunteers are needed to erect the traveling wall, a project that will begin at 7 a.m. May 14, and to dismantle it following closing ceremonies at 3 p.m. May 17.
From 3 p.m. May 11 until 3 p.m. May 17, the exhibit will be open to the public 24 hours a day. People are needed to take two-hour shifts to guard it throughout that week.
Anyone wishing to help and teachers who want to schedule Moorman to speak to their classes should call the historical society at 937-498-1653.
Exhibit to support display of traveling Vietnam wall