AUBURN, Ala. - Each of the tens of thousands of names etched into the reflective granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., represents not only a person who died in the name of service to country but also a face, a hometown, a personal past and loved ones left behind.
At Auburn High School, Advanced Placement U.S. History students have been working since the fall to put a face with each of those names by collecting photographs of fallen Vietnam War soldiers from Alabama and Georgia to add to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation's Wall of Faces - an effort to pair an image with every name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Photos collected will be displayed online and in the memorial's future education center.
"With the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War and the nation's efforts to commemorate this event, we are hoping to help honor the bravery and heroism of both our living and fallen heroes in an effort to say 'welcome home' to a group of American veterans that this sentiment was largely denied to at that time," said teacher Blake Busbin.
According to Busbin, when AHS students began collecting photos for the Wall of Faces in October 2015, Alabama still needed 674 out of the 1,210 fallen soldiers from the state, and Georgia still needed 715 out of 1,584. Since then, the Alabama number has reduced to 596 needed, and the Georgia number to 692.
Photos for all six of Auburn's fallen heroes and all nine of Opelika's have been secured for the Wall of Faces, and Busbin said that the project is still receiving one or two contacts per day informing the group of pictures found or that a person knows where to find one.
Busbin said that when the effort began, students focused on Lee County, but that area has since been expanded to include the entirety of Alabama and Georgia. Students have been reaching out to grandparents to help find pictures, which have come from both public and private collections.
"Both family members and friends of these soldiers have contributed many of these photos," Busbin said. "Photos have come from varying sources, such as a personal family photo to yearbooks found at public libraries. It has been great to see the support of communities as they learn about this effort and their desire to ensure their community's contribution to the Vietnam War is not forgotten."
Students sent letters to newspapers in hopes of informing readers of those who still need pictures from that area, and in March they plan to contact some of the older high schools in Alabama and Georgia seeking pictures from yearbooks.
"This will be difficult due to how segregation impacted where students attended school in the Vietnam era and how the 'hometown' of veterans meant different things to different veterans," Busbin said.
Another component of the project will happen in March, when students for the third year in a row interview area veterans about their experiences in the Vietnam War to be recorded and inducted into the Library of Congress.
Since the project began in 2014, 90 interviews have been recorded and inducted to the Library of Congress, and Busbin said the goal is to interview at least 50 veterans for this year's project.
Students have been sending letters to veteran organizations and churches in East Alabama and West Georgia inviting willing veterans to participate.
"We have been working actively to spread the message of this opportunity," Busbin said. "One of the biggest misunderstandings of the project has been people thinking we only interview those from the Auburn community. Any Vietnam veteran is welcome to participate, regardless of where they are from."
The AHS Veterans Project received the National Council for the Social Studies Christa McAuliffe Reach for the Stars Award in late November, which was accompanied by a $2,500 grant. Students will read a nonfiction book on the Vietnam War, which will coincide with a reading of "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien being taught in the high school's AP English classes.
In addition, students from the Auburn University School of Nursing will give poster presentations showcasing the medical needs of veterans during the Vietnam War and beyond.
"Altogether, with this cross-curricular approach and the interviews, the anticipation is building," Busbin said.