A pause for reflection at the Constitution Center

John Campbell , 65, of Glassboro, speaks about his book on the county's 43 Vietnam-era deaths. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
John Campbell , 65, of Glassboro, speaks about his book on the county's 43 Vietnam-era deaths. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 13, 2013

For John Campbell, it was a trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington that inspired him to spend nearly a decade chronicling the lives of the 43 soldiers and sailors from Gloucester County who died in the war.

That day in the early 1990s, the Vietnam vet found himself staring at the Wall. "I saw all those names," Campbell said. He felt he owed it to each of those men to tell his story.

Campbell was one of many veterans and others who spent Veterans Day at the National Constitution Center, honoring those who served with words of reflection.

At a morning wreath-laying ceremony in the center Grand Hall, the 78th Army Band of Fort Dix played "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Taps," and songs honoring each branch of the military.

The day's activities included talks by veterans; flag raising, lowering, and folding ceremonies; and face-to-face chats over the Internet with soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Campbell, who is 65 and from Glassboro said the day was about recognizing veterans for their service and contributions.

"It's a chance to let them know how much we appreciate them," he said. "And for the veterans themselves, it's a chance to be recognized and feel good about their service, when it wasn't always that way - especially for Vietnam veterans."

The retired restaurant manager was among several vets who spoke about life in the military to small audiences at the Constitution Center.

He read excerpts from his self-published book, They Were Ours: Gloucester County's Loss in Vietnam. In his 2002 book, Campbell, who earned the rank of specialist 5, profiles the 43 men who were killed in Vietnam.

"When I started this book, it was local," he said, "and I felt I already knew the people I wanted to talk to, I just hadn't met them yet."

At a table inside the center, Wallace Presley, 66, who was an Army man in Vietnam, spread the word about the Philadelphia Veterans Comfort House, a support center for homeless vets at 41st Street and Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia.

Presley said that after being drafted, he at first did not want go into the service, where he earned the rank of sergeant major.

"But my grandmother said, 'Look, your grandfather served in World War I and he's a proud man, and we need to keep up that tradition.' I served proudly."

Presley said that being at the Constitution Center was an honor. "I especially get to meet some of the young veterans that are serving, and I try to give them a heads-up that if you come back and have problems, there are organizations and agencies to help you," he said. "A lot of veterans feel they have no place to go."

Campbell ended his talk with a call for support for today's military. The nation has come around, he said, to separate its feelings toward the soldiers from its sentiments toward a war.

"It seems that we have learned that no matter how we feel about the politics or the morality of a military action," he said, "we owe those sent to carry it out no less than our gratitude, honor, and respect."

Contact Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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