While some view Memorial Day as a day off from work or a long weekend full of barbecues and pool parties, it means something entirely different for military veterans and their families.
It’s about honoring soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country, said Vietnam veteran and truck driver Alvin Garrard of Barberton, Ohio.
Garrard recently took the trip of a lifetime as he hauled The Wall That Heals, the three-quarter-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington that bears the names of more than 58,000 U.S. service members who lost their lives in Vietnam. Another 304,000 were wounded out of 2.7 million service members sent there.
“It really didn’t hit me until I hooked up to the [The Wall That Heals] trailer and then all of the memories came flooding back,” Garrard told FreightWaves. “It was very emotional.”
It meant even more to him, Garrard said, because the names of some of his friends who he served in combat with or grew up with are inscribed on the 140-panel display he hauled from Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, to Columbus, Ohio.
“More tears have flowed in the last couple of weeks since I started this journey — probably the most I’ve shed in my whole life,” Garrard said.
Since its debut in 1996, The Wall That Heals has been on display in nearly 700 communities across the country.
Garrard enlisted, not drafted
Garrard said he didn’t wait for his number to be drawn in the Vietnam War draft lottery, he volunteered, enlisting in the U.S. Army at age 19.
“In my heart, I was doing what I felt was right,” he said. “The political decisions didn’t matter to me. I was just there representing my country and representing my flag. That was what was important to me.”
After completing his basic training at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, Garrard boarded a plane for a 24-hour flight to Vietnam in November 1970 and served as an infantry soldier with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, headquartered at Bien Hoa Air Base, until the early fall of 1971.
As an infantry soldier assigned to the central highlands of Vietnam, Garrard said he lost many friends there. He said it was an honor of a lifetime to haul the mobile replica of The Wall that held the names of some of his friends.
“I’m not anything special, I’m just one of nearly 3 million soldiers who were sent to Vietnam,” Garrard said. “But I am so grateful that this happened to me.”
His brigade was the first major Army ground formation deployed in Vietnam, serving there from 1965 to 1971, losing 1,533 soldiers, according to History.com.
Hauling The Wall replica
Tara Rayl, director of driver relations for Akron, Ohio-based JRayl Transport, said Garrard is one of two drivers selected to drive its military-themed company trucks. Her father, Tim Rayl, co-founded the short- and long-haul trucking company in 1987.
“Our goal is to add a veteran-themed truck every year and we select a driver that is worthy, has great safety miles and a military background,” Rayl told FreightWaves.
She said JRayl volunteers to haul the mobile replica and helps set up the wall at least once a year.
After returning home from Vietnam, Garrard said the only people who thanked him for his service were other Vietnam veterans and their families.
“It was an unpopular war,” he said.
Garrard said he worked hard to push down his emotions as he returned to civilian life, first as a supervisor of a factory in Ohio before it was sold, then becoming a truck driver 22 years ago.
“I have friends who dealt with what they experienced in Vietnam in different ways. Drugs and alcohol were so cheap and prevalent over there, but their addictions followed them back home,” Garrard said. “I just went to work and tried to move on.”
It wasn’t until he left Tunkhannock with the mobile Vietnam Memorial replica that he felt “thanked for his service” and started reflecting back to his time in Vietnam and the friends he lost there.
Richard Hayworth, who heads the safety department at JRayl, has hauled the mobile replica previously and was with Garrard as he headed to Columbus.
“There was a 14-mile-long parade and Alvin had tears in his eyes because cars in the oncoming lane would actually stop coming into Columbus and honor the truck and there were people on the sidewalks with flags with some military vets in their 80s saluting us as we went by,” Hayworth, who has worked for JRayl for 26 years, told FreightWaves.
“Tears and smiles were flowing — it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “I was so proud to see that kind of patriotism lined up on the road with everything that’s going on in this world. This is what it’s all about.”