The statue created by a Vietnam veteran to honor all the servicemen and women from Wisconsin who died in that war continued its trek of healing around the state last weekend.
The 800 pound welded metal “The Journey” created by Charles Lee Hamilton Jr. made its way from the Tomahawk branch of River Valley Bank to the Korean War Memorial in Plover to be on display during the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Loyalty Day. While the sculpture of a jungle hat resting on the butt of a rifle stuck into a single combat boot was on display the entire weekend, the six dog tags containing the names of the fallen were covered in flags until Saturday afternoon. They were unveiled just as the VFW gathering was breaking up by representatives from the Merrill VFW post.
The dog tags were first uncovered when the work debuted at the River Valley Bank in Tomahawk over a month ago. It started the normally one hour trip from Tomahawk to Plover last Monday when it was temporarily moved back to his Irma home/studio where Hamilton also operates the Veterans Memorial Chapel. Because of the weight and bulk of the statue, it was not possible to drive at the posted speed limit, so the trip south was done slowly, with the small caravan of support vehicles traveling at 45 mph. On Wednesday, the statue traveled through Merrill to the County Services Building. There an honor guard from the VFW rendered a 21 gun salute and a special seventh dog tag joined the procession.
Hamilton has repeatedly said that small things have kept cropping up during the creation of the piece and the resulting attempt to have it travel to as many places in Wisconsin as he can. That seventh tag was another happenstance that reinforced to Hamilton that there was something special about this latest creation of his.
When the six tags were etched with the names of the fallen, one name was misspelled, Valentine Bernard Vollmer of Clintonville. When Hamilton saw the error, he had a corrected tag made.
“One day I was sitting there holding that dog tag looking at his name. It dawned on me that there were six dog tags, representing the six armed services,” he said. “It’s just little things about the tags. I can just feel it.”
As the work on the sculpture was completed and the debut in Tomahawk was arranged, Hamilton learned that Vollmer’s sister still lived in Clintonville. He worked to set up a chance to get the dog tag into her hands.
When he was finally able to show the tag to Elaine Vollmer-Gast and her husband Ken Saturday, he learned the story of how Vollmer came home to rest years after he fell in battle.
Gast told Hamilton that “Bernie” Vollmer, a heavy machine gunner, died during a battle in 1969. His remains were left behind as his unit moved forward in battle. Hours later, when members of his unit went to retrieve it, Vollmer’s remains were gone.
“So for a long time we didn’t really know if he was dead or possibly being held somewhere,” Gast said.
In 1976, a team returned to Vietnam and concentrated on searching sites where it was known that Americans had fallen in battle but their remains never were recovered. Vollmer’s remains were found in a mass grave next to a nearby village.
“Villagers would bury soldiers of both sides in their gardens,” Gast said.
He was finally buried in Clintonville with military honors in April of 1976, making Saturday’s meeting between Gast and Hamilton even more ironic for both of them.
“Every once in a while, he comes back in something like this,” Gast said as she gestured at the statue.
The special tag will be formally presented to Gast and the rest of her family when The Journey makes a stop in Clintonville at a date still being determined. After heading back to Hamilton’s studio for the rest of the month, it will next be displayed in Hurley over Memorial Day weekend.
Hamilton said that his fellow Vietnam veterans often share their stories with him when the piece is on display. That is part of what he sees as the real purpose of his creation, to get those who fought to finish their own personal journey of healing from what they saw in Southeast Asia.
To that end, he is working on taking the statue to as many Wisconsin towns as possible. He would like to have his statue be displayed along with a Wisconsin stop of the Traveling Vietnam Wall this summer. Which would be just another in a long string of coincidences for Hamilton and his work of art.
He was inspired to make his Wisconsin specific statue after seeing the Traveling Wall in Green Bay.