The poignant process of etching new names into the Vietnam Wall

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Preparing to cut another name into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, engraver Jim Lee carefully positions a stencil and a sandblasting platform at a designated spot on the Washington, D.C., memorial on Friday, May 2, 2014. (CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES)
From Stripes.com
Preparing to cut another name into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, engraver Jim Lee carefully positions a stencil and a sandblasting platform at a designated spot on the Washington, D.C., memorial on Friday, May 2, 2014. (CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES)

The poignant process of etching new names into the Vietnam Wall

by: Carlos Bongioanni | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: May 09, 2014

WASHINGTON — Lined row upon row, the names etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s polished black granite slabs are a somber reminder that more than 58,000 U.S. troops died — or were listed as missing-in-action — as a result of their involvement in the Vietnam War.

Even though the war ended four decades ago, the list continues to grow as Jim Lee and Kirk Bockman find spots to carefully sandblast new names on the memorial.

“It’s a very poignant statement about what war is all about,” Lee said of the wall last week, as the engraver and his business partner prepped a cordoned-off section of what’s known as “the Wall.”

RELATED: Stars and Stripes special report: Vietnam at 50

On Sunday, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund will host a ceremony at the memorial in recognition of the 13 veterans whose names they added. Eight veterans listed on the wall as missing will be recognized as having their status changed to “confirmed dead.”

Lee and Bockman came to the memorial in 1986 to add 110 names. The names on the original, dedicated in 1982, came from a Department of Defense master list that planners never intended to update, Lee said. Thinking the follow-up work might be “a one-time deal,” Lee said he asked Jan Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, how long the updating might go on.

“He said to me, ‘Jim, plan on it, you’ll be out here doing this when you’re 65.’”

Lee turns 66 in June.

“I just said, ‘Come on, no way. You’ve got to be kidding.’ But it’s true. We’re still out here doing it,” he said.

Even after doing this for 28 years, Lee remembers stories behind some of the names. He recalled one Vietnam veteran who spent 16 years in a coma at a VA hospital before he passed away. Another veteran — whom Lee said had visited the memorial — died after shrapnel lodged inside him from his days in Vietnam broke loose and severed his aorta.

Adding the names is a delicate process.

Precise measurements must be made to ensure letters are lined up, have the right width and are etched into the granite to a depth that matches the etchings already on the monument. If the inscription is too shallow, the new name will stand out. If it’s cut too deeply, the name will lie in shadows.

The letters are burned into the wall as a dust-free sandblasting apparatus is passed over a stencil mounted an adhesive. Aluminum oxide particles shot at high pressure cut into the granite under the stencil. The area around the letters has a rubber material that deflects the particles so the granite beneath the rubber does not get burned. At the same time the rock is being cut, a vacuum system sucks up the debris.

Ensuring that the adhesive holds the stencil in place is critical, Lee said. If the wall gets too hot, it could dry out and weaken the adhesive, causing stencil failure. Coupled with the strong suction of the vacuum system, a weakened adhesive could let the stencil lift up, allowing particles to mar the wall.

“That’s the most terrible thing that could happen,” Lee said, adding that even the slightest error with the sandblaster will cause exposed granite to turn white. “And so, if you have the center of the ‘O’ come off because the wall was too hot, then you have a great big white blob in the middle of a letter.”

At that point, Lee said, “you’ve done damage to the wall.”

Not wanting their company, Engrave Write in Denver, to be the one that “ruins a national memorial,” Lee and Bockman approach their job with the utmost care.

“This is not like most sandblasting. There are people immediately around you,” said Lee who recalled mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters watching him burn the name of their loved one on the wall. “It’s almost performance sandblasting, if you want to call it that.”

Lee said when he first began engraving names on the wall, he didn’t anticipate how important the memorial would become to him.

“It’s taught me a lot. To see what 58,000 names means. The sacrifice is pretty profound.”

Names added in 2014

Staff Sgt. Jerry Leon Antrich, U.S. Army
June 20, 1930 – Aug. 10, 1969
Date of Casualty: Nov. 1, 1967

Sgt. 1st Class Frederick Joseph Baum, U.S. Army
Feb. 22, 1930 – Feb. 28, 1971
Date of Casualty: Unknown

Pfc. Henry John Drozdowski, Jr., U.S. Army
March 9, 1947 – April 30, 2011
Date of Casualty: Jan. 13, 1967

Spc. 5 Michael Noel Faherty, U.S. Army
Dec. 30, 1946 – July 25, 1968
Date of Casualty: Unknown

Pfc. Gregory Jackson Franklin, U.S. Army
July 19, 1949 – Feb. 12, 1979
Date of Casualty: Nov. 27, 1968

Spc. 4 William Arthur Gabrielsen, U.S. Army
April 2, 1947 – March 10, 1970
Date of Casualty: Aug. 12, 1968

Pfc. Ronald Hall, U.S. Army
July 20, 1948 – Oct. 2, 1967
Date of Casualty: Unknown

Spc. 4 Robert Kroptavich, U.S. Army
Oct. 26, 1942 – Sept. 10, 1968
Date of Casualty: Unknown

Spc. 4 Thomas Charles Littles, U.S. Army
Nov. 29, 1946 – June 3, 1971
Date of Casualty: Dec. 28, 1969

Pfc. Paul Luther Loidolt, U.S. Army
Aug. 30, 1948 – Feb. 21, 1969
Date of Casualty: April 4, 1968

Master Sgt. Walter Hugh Mauldin, U.S. Army
Sept. 9, 1931 – May 8, 1968
Date of Casualty: Unknown

Spc. 4 Alan Leslie Seamans, U.S. Army
June 10, 1949 – Jan. 25, 1998
Date of Casualty: Oct. 13, 1967

Pfc. Danny Joe Wilson, U.S. Army
July 8, 1944 – Nov. 16, 2012
Date of Casualty: Aug. 18, 1966

Status changes

Maj. Howard Vincent Andre, Jr.; USAF; Memphis, Tenn.; Panel 21W, Row 80

Spc. 5 John Lawrence Burgess; USA; Kingsley, Mich.; Panel 9W, Row 104

Col. Thomas Wayne Dugan; USAF; Reading, Pa.; Panel 36W, Row 14

Maj. Louis Fulda Guillermin; USAF; of West Chester, Pa.; Panel 53E, Row 14

Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Barry Judd; USN; Cleveland, Ohio; Panel 22E, Row 88

Lt. Col. Robert Edward Pietsch; USAF; Cleveland, Ohio; Panel 53E, Row 21

Maj. James Elmo Sizemore, USAF; San Diego, Calif.; Panel 21W, Row 86

Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods; USA; Clarksville, Tenn.; Panel 1E, Row 68

bongioanni.carlos@stripes.com