MELBOURNE, Fla. – They fought together in Vietnam, but now two veterans groups are battling with each other over a symbol both deeply respect — the Vietnam wall.
Some of the former troops are grandparents now, but they can still hold their ground. It comes down to this: on one side a veterans' group based in Michigan, on the other, a Florida group.
Both have built replicas of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington — Michigan's two walls constructed more than a decade ago and Florida's unveiled last year. In the past few months, however, the groups have fired off volleys of e-mails over a trademark dispute and threatened each other with legal action.
The Michigan-based Vietnam Combat Veterans Ltd. says Florida's group has used its name, "The Moving Wall," on a commemorative coin it sold and on other literature. The Florida group, Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, says any use was a mistake and has stopped selling the coins. Both groups agree only on that they're trying to honor the same 58,000 names.
So why not just settle the conflict? It's not that easy, the groups say.
"They're using our name to make money. That's desecration of the name of every man and woman on the wall," said Channing Prothro of Vietnam Combat Veterans. On behalf of the group, he's demanded a return of some of the Florida group's profits.
Ken Baker, a past president of the Brevard group, says only about $600 was made from the coin and calls the conflict "a shame."
The pair of walls aren't the only ones traveling the country. A half-scale version called "The Wall That Heals" is managed by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the nonprofit group that built the Washington wall. A company that sells funeral services sets up its "Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall" in cemeteries. And another organization, the American Veterans Traveling Tribute, includes a wall with several memorials to American soldiers.
The traveling walls can be easier to get to than the Washington original and, at a fraction of the size, more manageable for veterans like Arizona resident Greg Cook. He visited the Florida wall in April but said visiting Washington's wall is difficult, comparing facing it to confronting a hand grenade.
"It's like somebody put a hand frag in your gut and a hand frag in each of your ears and pulled the pin, and Boom!" Cook said.
Veterans in Florida have been able to visit a traveling wall during their annual reunion for almost two decades. By tradition, some of the same people help set it up every year, carrying wall panels that contain names of people they knew. During the week of the reunion, some veterans visit early in the morning or late in the evening when it's quiet, often bringing a beer to drink and another to set at the wall's base for a friend. In April, a pack of cigarettes and a deck of playing cards had been left along with wreaths and flowers, and both Florida and Michigan groups save anything that gets left.
"It's more than just an empty beer bottle," said Greg Welsh, who manages and travels with the Florida wall. "It's somebody sharing with a fellow comrade."
For many years, Florida veterans like Welsh paid to bring "The Moving Wall" to their reunion. The Moving Wall's founder, John Devitt, built the replica after attending the 1982 dedication of the Washington memorial, adding a second wall and — for a time — a third.
A few years ago, however, Devitt's walls stopped coming to Florida. Whether it was a scheduling or a personality conflict, it's hard to untangle. But Devitt was frustrated by the Florida group, and the Florida veterans felt betrayed by the short notice they had to find a replacement.
Since then, the two groups have been at odds. In 2005, the Florida veterans built "The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall" so they would never have to rely on others. But "The Moving Wall" name still appeared — unintentionally, the group says — on some of its literature and a gold commemorative coin it sold, one produced before the two groups parted ways. The coin incensed Devitt's group, which says it doesn't sell any wall memorabilia.
The result: e-mails setting a deadline for the coins to be removed from Florida's Web site and posted warnings about the Florida group on the Michigan Web site. A taped phone call between them was also briefly posted on The Moving Wall's site. The Florida group, took the coins off its site but did not send any money it made back. Now, the conflict is at a sort of stalemate.
Both groups say it shouldn't affect people coming to the various walls, though many attending Florida's reunion know the story. What's important is that people visit, the groups believe.
And when it comes to diminishing what the other is trying to do, neither has a parting shot.