Travels to Washington to read names of soldiers killed in Vietnam
With her right index finger, Barbara Horn traced the “V” inscribed on the cold black granite wall. The morning sun shone on her face as a brisk breeze tussled her silver hair on Nov. 10. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She was close, in a way, to her childhood friend for the first time since their younger days playing tetherball at Freeport’s Northwest Park.
“He was the tall skinny kid with the easy, wide grin across his face,” Horn, who now lives in Long Beach, recalled of Viertus Reikmans, who grew up in Freeport and served as an Army mechanic in Vietnam. He was killed by “friendly fire” in August 1969 after his unit was attacked.
Kneeling in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., within arm’s length of Reikmans’s name inscribed on the granite, she cried. “I just can’t believe that I’m here and I’m doing this today,” Horn said, as she wiped away her tears.
In honor of Veterans Day, Horn applied to the lottery and won the opportunity to read Reikmans’s name as part of an annual ceremony at the Wall. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is the nonprofit organization who founded the Wall.
“I knew I had to do this for Viertus,” she said, as she waited for her turn to
read the set of names assigned to her by the Memorial Fund.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial honors service members who fought — and died — in the Vietnam War, including in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia.
More than 2.7 million Americans, including 265,000 women, served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975. In all, 58,000 were killed and 304,000 were wounded. All of the names of the dead appear on the Wall.
Veterans and families were seen walking solemnly around the Memorial last Friday, searching for the names of family members and friends at the Constitutional Gardens near the National Mall, just northeast of the Lincoln Memorial, where the Memorial stands. Each year more than 3 million visitors come to pay homage to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam.
Once at the lectern, Horn took her time reading each name and honoring each solider. When she reached Reikmans’s name, she paused, and with tears filling her eyes, she read his name to the audience of veterans and families.
“When she stood and read his name, it was as she was doing it for me too,” Silvija Reikman, 66, Viertus’s younger sister, said. She was unable to attend the ceremony, but was able to watch Horn read her brother’s name via video.
Reikman and his family moved to Freeport in 1954 from Germany. He graduated from Freeport High School in 1967 and worked at the Texaco service station off Sunrise Highway. His goal, according to Silvija, was to become a mechanic and eventually open his own shop in Freeport.
“He joined the Army before his draft number was called,” Silvija, now a Virginia resident, said. “The Army recruiter told him if he signed up before his draft number was called, he could pick any division he wanted. He wanted to train to be a mechanic, so he joined.”
Viertus was 20 years old when he shipped off to Vietnam. He had been in the country a month, in Cam Ranh Bay, when the Viet Cong attacked his unit. The next day, while on guard duty, he was mistaken as a member of the Viet Cong and was killed by “friendly fire.”
“We were very nervous about him leaving,” Silvija recalled. “But he kept saying, ‘I’m going to be in with the mechanics, and it’s going to be one of the safest places to be. I’ll be safe and I’ll be back home.”
Silvija said Horn’s trip to the nation’s capital brought back a series of memories for her and her mother, Milda Jaudzems, now 90, who lives in Washington state. Silvija said her mother keeps a duffle bag with Viertus’s uniform, letters from the military, and sympathy letters from friends and family members under her bed. Jaudzems, according to Horn, is one of the last Freeport Gold Star mothers who sent sons to Vietnam who is still alive. Gold Star families, also known as Gold Star American families, are the relatives of U.S. military members who died in battle. Gold Star status was awarded to the Reikmans family shortly after his death.
“After all of these years, I still think of him, Viertus, morning and night,” Jaudzems said. “I can’t get over that he was killed by one of our own. I wish people could understand what it’s like to be a Gold Star family.”
“My heart goes to all of the people that have kept him in their memories,” Silvija said in a cracked voice. “It was an honor for us to have someone who knew him read his name.”