Retired veteran gives back

Jim Reece of East Wenatchee is a photo researcher for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (Empire Press photo/Darlene Paterson)

 

By Darlene Paterson
Empire Press Correspondent

Jim Reece of East Wenatchee spends about five hours a day at his computer searching for photos and updating information for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

His official title is photo researcher for the Vietnam War. Reece considers his volunteer work a way to give back to his country.

Reece served in the Army Infantry for seven and a half years beginning in February of 1970. “I wanted to go to Vietnam but was ordered to ‘stay put.’ I guess somebody out there liked me,” he added.

Following active duty, Reece heard about a reserve program at McChord Air Force base. He signed up for the Air Force Reserves and served until 2009, when he retired as a first sergeant.

He spent some of that time working at a computer, keeping track of supplies and financial records for Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis.

“The military has been good to me. I’m happy that a guy like me could make a career in it,” Reece said. He developed an interest in photo research in 2005 while helping his brother Tom with family genealogical records.

When Reece learned the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) planned to build a center where photos of all vets listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall would be displayed, the project grabbed his interest.

The VVMF, under the auspices of the Department of Defense, is currently raising funds to build a two-story educational center across from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. Since its completion in 1982, over 5.6 million people have visited the wall annually. 58,276 names are etched on the 492 foot black granite wall.

It is a huge funding effort since government money cannot be used to build the center. Construction is slated to begin in 2018 with a two-year completion goal. The finished site will be maintained by the National Park Service (NPS).

Telling the story of a wall that became a site of individual grief and public mourning, the educational center will be an interactive learning facility. With a goal of preserving the stories of those who gave their lives and providing historical accounts of the Vietnam Era, the center will display a picture of each vet, along with some of the hundreds of thousands of objects that have been left at the wall. It will “connect our nation’s future with our nation’s past.”

“When I heard about the need for pictures, I had already begun looking for guys from my North Carolina high school who gave their lives in Vietnam,” Reece said. “After learning of the VVMF project, my brother and I set a goal to find all 1,956 vets from the state of North Carolina.” The Reece brothers, along with helpers Rosa King and Dan Brodt, finished the North Carolina project this past May.

Reece continues the work by helping other states. He says his forte is cleaning up photos and making them presentable.

He assisted Janna Hoehn of Hawaii to complete all seven Hawaiian Islands, then Hoehn helped Reece complete Washington state. They found the remaining 432 photos out of 1,050 that a former group of Washington state researchers had been unable to locate.

Reece refers often to a map on his wall showing the number of Vietnam vets from each state that died in the conflict. He marks off each state as it is finished and keeps track of names from states not yet completed.

“The VVMS website is like our Bible,” Reece said. “We get our information there and it’s where we send the photos. Sometimes we find mistakes, like a wrong middle name for example. Then we contact Tim Tetz, current veteran photo coordinator, who does a good job working through red tape to make the changes.”

Reece and other researchers look for information and pictures from sources such as old newspaper articles, obituaries, yearbooks, social media and various websites. Sometimes they resort to phone calls or visits to relatives and neighbors in order to obtain a picture.

Reece said 22 states are completed. “We are close to finishing Arizona, Texas and Kentucky. With over 5,000 names in California, I think that will be the last state done,” Reece said. “We are going full speed ahead and should get this wrapped up by the time the building is finished.”

“One thing that has come from this project, something unexpected, has been the opportunity for me to reunite about six families. For example, connecting grandparents with grandchildren they didn’t know existed, that is the kind of stuff you think about.” Reece touched his heart. “My brother Tom and I have helped others get headstones for loved one’s graves when they didn’t know they were entitled. It has all been very rewarding.”

“A person wants to leave a small footprint and know you did something of value for somebody else when you leave this earth,” Reece concluded. “This is my legacy.”

To learn more about the building of the educational center at the wall, go to buildthecenter.org or vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/search/results.

For additional information, visit virtualwall.org or findagrave.com.