The Journal Gazette
Saturday, May 23, 2020 6:50 pm

Watch fire burns to honor fallen heroes

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Roy Vierck spent Friday night tending the watch fire.

The smoky blaze, inspired by military signal fires dating back to the Revolutionary War, was lit to honor deceased veterans. This Memorial Day weekend marked the 32nd annual watch fire at the Veterans National Memorial Shrine and Museum at 2122 O'Day Road.

As of early Saturday afternoon, more than 275 names had been added to a growing list of loved ones being remembered by local residents.

"We feel here that it's important to honor all veterans because every one made the sacrifice," Vierck said, explaining why the event honors all deceased veterans and not just those who were killed in action.

"They stood up and said, 'I'll defend this county.' Any time you do that, you give up your own freedom," he added.

The 24-hour event began Friday with a 6 p.m. ceremony that attracted about 25 people. Afterward, visitors came and went on Friday evening and Saturday. Each was invited to add a log to the fire in memory of a loved one and talk about that person's military service.

From 1 to 5 a.m. Saturday morning, Vierck was alone with the watch fire and his thoughts. 

"Given the stories that came out, and me honoring my own family, it brings up a lot of emotion," he said, choking back tears at the memory of his thoughts during those hours.

Vierck, 49, is an Army aviation veteran who served during the Somali War, from 1989-95. His younger brother still serves in the Army Reserves. An uncle and a cousin served, too. His two grandfathers served during World War II but never revealed details of what they saw.

"Things like this give veterans a way to heal," he said of the event.

Each person's experience becomes woven into a family's history, Vierck said.

"Some of it's good. Some of it's bad," he said. "It helps me to heal."

Paul Reitman, 37, also found some peace while sitting with his daughter on a bench beside the watch fire. The 41-acre property is covered with trees, gently rolling hills and various military memorials. 

The veterans' organization is raising money to place a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall there, creating what officials expect will become a tourist destination.

The anodized aluminum wall features the inscribed names of more than 58,000 Americans who died or were unaccounted for during the Vietnam War. At 8 feet tall and 360 feet long, it is 80% as large as the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

Reitman, an Army National Guard recruiter working in DeKalb County, spent 12 1/2 years on active duty, including three deployments. During his first deployment, his operations officer was killed in action. Years, earlier, his grandfather served during World War I. A distant cousin also served.

"I came out here," Reitman said, "to honor all the people."

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