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Families wash Vietnam memorial to honor fallen fathers

From Kevin Bohn and Greg Clary, CNN
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Remembering fallen fathers at 'The Wall'
  • Relatives of Vietnam veterans travel to Washington
  • To commemorate Father's Day, they polished the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
  • Army Chief of Staff George Casey spoke to those gathered

Washington (CNN) -- Sons, daughters, grandchildren and other relatives of those who died in the Vietnam War gathered before dawn this Father's Day to remember their fallen relatives in a unique way.

With brushes, mops, hoses and soap, they set about cleaning the granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Their mission was to polish each of the more than 58,000 names of Americans who died.

One of the 25 people at work was Wayne Jones, whose father was an Army aviator and whose plane crashed in bad weather after having returned from a courier flight on August 17, 1967 -- about seven months after he arrived in Vietnam.

It was the second trip to the memorial for Jones, from Houston, Texas.

"I have spent all these years since 1967 celebrating Father's Day without my father, and being here with this group gives me a means to honor him and I just feel really good to be here," Jones said.

"This has never happened on Father's Day," Jones said. "What we do is we wash any of the dirt or whatever that may have gathered ... so that the wall has the reflective capability of polished granite. So that we can feel, I guess, a clean start to our Father's Day."

The event was part of the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of a group called Sons and Daughters in Touch, a support group for the children of service members who died or who are classified Missing in Action during the Vietnam War.

Roughly 20,000 service members, about one third of the more than 58,000 military personnel who either were killed or MIA in Vietnam, were fathers, according to the group.

Tony Cordero, who helped form the organization, was 4 years old when his dad's plane disappeared -- on Father's Day.

"I think it's ironic that our dad was lost over Father's Day weekend, but more importantly for all of my friends, all of the sons and daughters from all over the country who come here this weekend, it's a Father's Day we didn't get to celebrate as children," Cordero told CNN.

"So while our moms filled that role for us, there wasn't the father figure, and so as little kids, Father's Day didn't have a whole lot of significance -- and then you fast forward to today, and these folks have been able to change Father's Day meaning a little bit for themselves and their families," Cordero said.

While Jones was able to bury his father, others who gathered still do not have all of the answers.

Patti Rowley's father, Col. Charles Rowley, was an Air Force navigator shot down in 1970.

"It's an honor. It is the least I could do for all the men -- not just my father, [but] all the men here, what they have done for us," Rowley said. "What a way to honor our fathers."

From across the country, about 1,000 people traveled to Washington this weekend to honor their fallen heroes.

At a ceremony, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey Jr., whose own father was killed in 1970 when his command helicopter crashed in Vietnam, spoke to the relatives and honored their memories.

"I believe this monument has had a lot to do with ensuring that our father's sacrifices would be both remembered and appreciated," Casey said.

The families then placed roses at the base of the wall to honor their fathers and all the fallen.