Emotional times: Vietnam Wall, 9/11 Wall traveling exhibits make stop in West Palm Beach

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It was an emotional time for Herb Sennett as he squatted and used a pencil and paper to make an impression of his buddy’s name from the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall on Saturday.

“I’m visiting my best friend from college,” the West Palm Beach resident said.

Sennett, who served in Vietnam in the U.S. Army infantry from 1968-75, said his friend and fraternity brother, PFC Kenneth A. Prejean, died in Vietnam in 1969 in a night ambush.

About 2,000 people have been to the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport since its arrival Thursday in conjunction with the American Gold Star Mothers 2022 National Convention.

The wall is permanently housed in Brevard County but travels the nation, mostly from Texas eastward, between April and November making about 18 stops per year.

When Sennett learned the Wall would be nearby, he decided to make a visit.

“It’s something I felt I needed to do,” he said.

It’s not just veterans that see the stirring display.

“It’s been a really interesting mix,” said wall manager Rick “Doc” Russo.

Many visitors to the exhibit are Vietnam veterans, but many are also Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. And there’s another growing group of visitors.

“There’s a whole lot of the younger generation moms,” Russo said, referring to mothers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Sennett wasn’t alone in experiencing an emotional moment at the exhibit.

Robert “Maverick” Anderson, a 75-year-old Jupiter resident and Marine who served two tours in Vietnam as a door gunner on a Huey gunship from 1965-67, was remembering a friend, Clarence A. Kimm, who died while preparing for an exam to become a crew chief. Part of the requirement was swimming 200 yards parallel to the beach.

“He just happened to hit a bad rip current and it took him out to sea,” said Anderson, a Chicago native and chaplain for American Legion Post 271 in Tequesta, Florida.

Anderson, who said he saw lots of combat, said one of the things he remembers most was what happened when he came home.

“I’ll never erase that scar,” he said. “Nothing will erase that, the way we were treated. It was a shame.”

Anderson said when he landed at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport some people called the soldiers “baby killers” and were spitting on them.

“I was almost ready to just go back,” he said. “I felt like our country had abandoned us.”

“By the time we got to Iraq and Afghanistan, servicemen were honored.”

Army Maj. Michael Manali, a reservist with the 87th training division, was visiting the exhibit with about 15 fellow reservists.

Manali is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, but his military roots run deep.

“I’ve had uncles who fought in the Vietnam War so it’s really personal for me,” he said.

It’s also a reminder of his responsibility moving forward. Manali has been promoted to Lt. Col. He said he recently took a class that taught “what’s supposed to happen the right way.”

He said the exhibit serves as what can happen when things go badly.

“As a leader, I have to do this right,” he said. “It has to be done right because a lot of lives are on the line.”

The emotional responses at the wall vary greatly. Russo said one veteran told him he carries guilt because he sustained a non-combat injury and a fellow soldier told him to stay on the ground while he took the injured man’s helicopter shift. The helicopter went down that day and all five aboard died.

“This guy has been carrying that guilt for 50 years,” Russo said.

Sennett understands, but in a different way.

“I came that close to dying four or five times,” he said, holding his index finger and thumb about an inch apart. “Every time I hit the ground I kept wondering, ‘Why am I alive?’”

But unlike Anderson and many other Vietnam veterans, Sennett had a good homecoming.

“I came home to a loving wife,” he said, holding back tears. “She was my anchor.”