With her right index finger, Barbara Horn traced the “V” inscribed on the cold black granite wall. The morning sun shone on her face as a brisk breeze tussled her silver hair on Nov. 10. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She was close, in a way, to her childhood friend for the first time since they played tetherball at Freeport’s Northwest Park.
“He was the tall, skinny kid with the easy, wide grin across his face,” Horn, who now lives in Long Beach, recalled of Viesturs Reikmanis, who grew up in Freeport and was as an Army mechanic in Vietnam. He was killed by “friendly fire” in August 1969 after his unit was attacked.
Kneeling in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., within arm’s length of Reikmans’s name inscribed on the granite, she cried. “I just can’t believe that I’m here and I’m doing this today,” Horn said, as she wiped away her tears.
In honor of Veterans Day, Horn was asked to read Reikmanis’s name as part of an annual ceremony at the Wall. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which built the Wall, asked her to attend.
“I knew I had to do this for Viesturs,” she said as she waited for her turn to read the set of names assigned to her.
The memorial honors service members who died in the Vietnam War. More than 2.7 million Americans, including 265,000 women, served in Southeast Asia from 1964 to 1975. In all, 58,000 were killed and 304,000 were wounded. All of the names of the dead appear on the wall.
Visitors walked solemnly around the memorial last Friday, searching for the names of family members and friends at the Constitutional Gardens near the National Mall, just northeast of the Lincoln Memorial, where the memorial stands. Each year more than 3 million visitors come to pay homage to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam.
At the lectern, Horn took her time reading each name. When she reached Reikmanis’s name, she paused, and with tears filling her eyes, she read his name to the audience.
“When she stood and read his name, it was as she was doing it for me too,” Silvija Reikmanis, 66, Viesturs’s younger sister, said. She was unable to attend the ceremony, but watched Horn read her brother’s name via video.
Reikmanis and his family moved to Freeport in 1954 from Germany. He graduated from Freeport High School in 1967, and worked at the Texaco service station off Sunrise Highway. His goal, according to Silvija, was to become a mechanic and eventually open his own shop in Freeport.
“He joined the Army before his draft number was called,” said Silvija, now a Virginia resident. “The Army recruiter told him if he signed up before his draft number was called, he could pick any division he wanted. He wanted to train to be a mechanic, so he joined.”
Viesturs was 20 years old when he shipped off to Vietnam. He had been in the country a month, in Cam Ranh Bay, when the Vietcong attacked his unit. The next day, while on guard duty, he was mistaken as a member of the Vietcong and was killed by “friendly fire.”
“We were very nervous about him leaving,” Silvija recalled. “But he kept saying, ‘I’m going to be in with the mechanics, and it’s going to be one of the safest places to be. I’ll be safe and I’ll be back home.’”
Silvija said that Horn’s trip to the nation’s capital brought back a series of memories for her and her mother, Milda Jaudzems, now 90, who lives in Washington state. Silvija said her mother keeps a duffle bag with Viesturs’s uniform, letters from the military, and sympathy letters from friends and family members under her bed. Jaudzems, according to Horn, is one of the last Gold Star mothers who sent sons to Vietnam who is still alive.
“After all of these years, I still think of him, Viesturs, morning and night,” Jaudzems said. “I can’t get over that he was killed by one of our own. I wish people could understand what it’s like to be a Gold Star family.”
“My heart goes to all of the people that have kept him in their memories,” Silvija said in a cracked voice. “It was an honor for us to have someone who knew him read his name.”