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A Memorial to Peers : Students Honor the 19-Year-Olds Who Died in Vietnam

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With an American flag fluttering in the breeze and the names of the dead memorialized forever in bronze, 18-year-old Walt Ruskin stood at a microphone and tried to make sense of a war that had claimed so many.

“As you look today at the 330 names, you will see nothing wonderful about war,” said Ruskin, a husky football player dressed in coat and tie. “It is the ultimate social problem.”

As Ruskin spoke--a solemn tribute to the young Orange County men who had died in Vietnam--representatives of the armed services stood at attention. His classmates, many the same age as those who died in battle so many years ago, stood silently.

“We who are living must work for peace,” he continued. “Today, let us not just weep but dedicate ourselves to love and peace, for that is what freedom is all about. This memorial should represent a new beginning, a healing for our pain, and a thanks to all veterans everywhere.”

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The scene Wednesday morning was the dedication of Huntington Beach High School’s memorial to Orange County servicemen who died in the Vietnam War. According to state officials, it is the only high school in the state, and possibly in the nation, to have a memorial honoring an entire county’s list of Vietnam war dead.

The memorial was a student project, inspired by one of their teachers, American government instructor Len Ewers. Given that the average age of U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam was only 19, Ewers told his students it would be fitting for a high school to erect a memorial to such young victims of war.

The dream became a reality when school officials unveiled the bronze and wood plaques bearing the names of all 330 Orange County servicemen killed in Vietnam. The names are listed under their hometowns in the county, beginning with Anaheim and ending with Yorba Linda.

A gray-haired woman dressed in white pointed to the list of names from Huntington Beach and found that of Terry Lee Tebbetts.

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“That’s my son,” said Erlene Tebbetts, who now lives in Long Beach. “He grew up here. He graduated from Marina High School in 1966, and he volunteered for the Army. He was killed in Vietnam about five months after he got over there in 1968. He was 19.”

Tebbetts was with a delegation of other women representing Gold Star Mothers, women whose sons were killed during wars. They were among the scores of visitors who viewed the new memorial after the dedication ceremonies in front of the high school’s tower-auditorium.

“My son’s name is on many memorials, including the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., which I’ve seen. But this one means so much to me because Huntington Beach was his home. This is where he grew up. He loved it here,” Tebbetts said.

Gary Ernst, school principal, said the two Vietnam War Memorial plaques will be permanently housed in the entrance to the high school auditorium next to an existing World War II memorial. Two drawings by Huntington Beach High senior Kayo Nakamura, 18, will be part of the school’s Vietnam Memorial.

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One of Nakamura’s drawings was the haunting charcoal portrait of three servicemen displayed at the unveiling ceremonies.

“I tried to depict three men of different ages and racial backgrounds,” she said. “One is a medic, and he is looking down, looking concerned. One is a young man, an innocent-looking young man. The third is an older man, but it’s the war that has aged him beyond his years.”

Ruskin and student government president Chad Little, who is also a senior, spoke briefly during the outdoor ceremonies.

“What these men gave for us, nothing can replace,” Little said. “What we can offer is our very belated thanks and appreciation to these courageous individuals and their families.”

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Led by Ruskin, who headed the fund-drive committee, students set an initial goal of $2,500 for the memorial but later found the cost would be closer to $4,000. As recently as two weeks ago, the student drive had raised only $500. But a newspaper story about the project produced a flurry of letters and donations, Ruskin said. “We’ve now raised about $2,500, and we hope to raise about $1,500 more,” he said.

Ernst said letters “are coming to the high school from all over. Some have messages about their sons or other relatives killed in the war. One organization has offered to match what we raise, but right now the students are hoping to raise all of the $4,000 on their own.”

As part of the ceremonies, the names of each Orange County serviceman killed in Vietnam was read aloud over the outdoor loudspeaker. As each name was read, a student would release one of the red, white and blue balloons held near the memorial plaques. A high school band member played taps on his trumpet.

Tebbetts watched the ceremony without tears, and with a brave smile.

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“I am very, very proud of my son,” she said. “He didn’t die in vain. This memorial is wonderful for him. It’s like coming home.”


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