Jim Britton's greatest fear back in 1965 was that he would never get out of Fairhope, Ala.
He was a high school dropout with no love for his hometown and little ambition. He remembered his father's service with the Marines at Iwo Jima in World War II and figured he had a better chance of capturing an island than making a life where he was. So he enlisted.
"I joined knowing I was going to Vietnam," the Ventura man said Wednesday. "I had no doubts, no fears. Blind faith."
By the time his tour was up less than two years later, his world had changed completely. His marriage had soured and his blind faith had been shattered.
Early Wednesday morning, he and half a dozen other middle-aged veterans and a crew of gravediggers met on the grounds of Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park to erect a monument to that long-ago war that would connect them to their pasts and call forth their dead comrades.
Tonight, the names of 135 Ventura County soldiers who died in the war will be read aloud at the monument, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Beginning Saturday, every name on the wall--more than 58,000--will be read aloud in shifts expected to last 49 hours.
The replica will be on display at the cemetery around-the-clock through Monday. Half the size of the original, the memorial is owned by the funeral home's parent company and is one of three replicas traveling the country.
On Wednesday, Britton and the others bolted wooden frames together, laid rubber sidewalk and anchored the faux graphite etchings bearing the names of the dead and missing.
As they worked, they did Bob Dylan impersonations, swapped old war jokes, and talked about how serving in Vietnam had shaped their lives.
In 1967, after running supplies and troops to the front, Britton came home to strangers who spit at him. He learned that a childhood friend who had also gone off to Vietnam had been blown up on a river boat. And the girlfriend Britton had married just before he shipped out had turned into a war protester in his absence. He couldn't find anything to say to her about what he had been through.
Nevertheless, they hung on for nearly two decades, raising a child, trying to make the marriage work, still separated by a war that had ended years ago. When they finally divorced, Britton's next move was almost instinctive: He joined every veterans group he could find.
Now 54, Britton is president of Vietnam Veterans of Ventura County. He is remarried and manages an apartment complex in Ventura. Since the traveling wall began in the mid-1980s, he has helped organize four visits to the area. He has helped many veterans and surviving family members confront the wall for the first time.
"It's like we're bringing them back up, they're coming up from the earth to be remembered," said former Marine Sgt. Shannon "Irish" Curtis, 50, of Thousand Oaks, as he prepared to raise one segment of the wall. "They'd feel good about it," said the Home Depot employee and former pro football player.
Curtis was a college student when he enlisted with three friends; two of the three were killed. Curtis worked special operations as a sniper and on search and rescue missions into North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. They were missions the government would later deny had taken place.
Curtis earned two Purple Hearts and still bears scars from bullet and shrapnel wounds. Three years ago, he helped build a Habitat for Humanity home for a Vietnamese family in Camarillo.
For John Hoos, 56, of Westlake Village, his tour in Vietnam would help to shape his career. Enlisting in the Army in 1966, he specialized in military intelligence. He and 50 other men studied the Vietnamese language together. One of those classmates was killed in the Tet Offensive.
Hoos earned a Purple Heart after a round of mortar exploded in his face.
His war training in intelligence helped when he became an FBI agent after his return. He worked cases from organized crime to terrorism to narcotics in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. He spent the past 13 years as the FBI's spokesman in Los Angeles and retired earlier this year.
Ruben Lariz, a 43-year-old site superintendent at the funeral home, spent Wednesday giving his grounds crew instructions in Spanish. Most of the dozen Latino men in hard hats knew little about the war and spoke little to the veterans. Many, including Lariz, had come to America after the war.
But Lariz said he would be looking for one name as he helped erect the memorial. His uncle, Miguel Ruvalcaba, enlisted after coming to America in 1961. In 1963, Ruvalcaba was killed.
Lariz said he is glad his uncle fought in the war although it cost him his life. As an American, it was his duty, he said.
Those who want to view the replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall may visit the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village. The exhibit will be open to the public 24 hours a day through Monday. For directions, or to volunteer to read names, call Pierce Brothers at 495-0837.