Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial offers peace, honor and reflection
Jim Eddleman has delivered on a promise 50 years in the making. On Jan. 31, 1968, the 19-year-old farm boy from Perryville was a long way from home, serving his country during the Vietnam War. At 3 a.m., his airbase came under rocket and mortar attack. Waves of enemy troops followed the barrage.
“We were able to counter them back, but that day was the worst day of the 16-year war,” Jim recalls. “We lost 246 Americans — the most that was killed in one day.”
That day, now known as the start of the Tet Offensive, was a turning point in the Vietnam War and a day Jim will never forget. “I helped carry several wounded comrades to evacuation helicopters,” he recalls. “When I had time to reflect, I made a promise to myself if I made it back to the United States alive, I had to do something to show my respect and honor for my comrades.”
Jim returned to Perryville and his wife, Charlene. The young couple began building their life together. Decades later, after Jim’s career in the meat processing industry and some well-timed investments, the couple finally had the means to deliver on the promise — they just needed the perfect idea.
“One evening, I was sitting in my recliner and out of nowhere I thought: Why don’t I build a memorial?” Jim recalls. “I had some friends from high school who specialized in construction, so we had a few meetings and all decided to do it.”
Jim and Charlene, along with their newly formed board of directors, soon had a large group of supporters. At first, they planned a quarter-sized replica of Washington, D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But, if that was doable, why not do a half-scale wall? Or a full-scale replica?
After visiting with officials in Washington, D.C., who loved the idea of a sister memorial in the Midwest, the plans shifted into high gear. The perfect spot just happened to be next to Jim and Charlene’s home outside of Perryville. So, they donated 46 acres to the project.
In only seven years, a former cornfield was transformed into today’s full-scale model of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, welcome center, military museum, military monument and more. The black granite on the Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial is from the same quarry in India as the original.
The 58,291 names engraved match the original wall, down to the more than 60 names that are misspelled. Every detail of the original was painstakingly reproduced, including the same east-west orientation.
“It is an exact replica of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., but we do have a few differences,” says Rae Lynn Munoz, executive director of the Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial. “One is we line ours with 70 American flags. Second, we are laser etched so you cannot do stenciling here, but we have the material for you to request one from D.C.”
Volunteers comprise 80% of the memorial’s staff. One is veteran Bill Tlapek of nearby Ste. Genevieve.
“In 1968, I was going to Southeast Missouri State University,” he says. “I got drafted and I always tell everybody I was a long hair, girl chasing, beer drinking and Corvette driving kid. Six months later I was dodging bullets.”
Bill’s firsthand knowledge of the Vietnam War allows him to bring the displays and memorial to life for visitors, which regularly include local students. He has tokens from his time during his service that he shares with visitors, including photos and letters he wrote home to his family.
“It’s a good feeling to be here,” Bill says of the memorial. “We can slow down and remember the sacrifices these guys and women have made for their country.”
For Jim, the setting of the wall is what makes the Missouri memorial so special. “Washington, D.C. is so noisy with traffic, horns and people,” he says. “Here you can sit in the quiet and reflect. We call it the wall that heals. I can’t tell you how many lives we may have saved here, but I know we have saved some. If we can get the guys who have PTSD to come here and reflect, they can leave their burden at the wall and get it off their back. The more we can get here, the more we can save.”
Jim and Charlene, who greet visitors almost daily, have heard countless stories from veterans and their families about what the memorial means to them. One man visits weekly to honor his brother who died in Vietnam.
“He never misses a Saturday,” Jim says. “He used to go to Washington, D.C., about every five years. Now he can come here every week. We know a lot of people who can’t get to Washington, D.C., but they can get here.”
Somber and inspiring, Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial is a place of reflection and honor — and a fulfilled promise.
Visit Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial at 1172 Veterans Memorial Parkway in Perryville. The wall is open all year, day and night. The Welcome Center and Museum are open daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Celebrate Veteran’s Day at the memorial with a ceremony at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11. Learn more at mnvmfund.org.