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George R. Green Jr.

George R. Green Jr. Credit: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

The wall is black granite, nearly 500 feet long. It's etched with the names of U.S. service members who died in Vietnam.

The wall with its 58,318 entries seems endless, and you pass that solemn roster of death at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington knowing you're trodding on hallowed ground.

Each name cut into the wall signifies a life cut short in a faraway land. Each also is testimony to their common fate, even if they arrived there in 58,318 unique ways.

In 2006, the wall's caretakers, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, decided to tell a deeper story about each of those men and women. So they embarked on a different kind of mission. They started to track down photos, one for each of the deceased, for a virtual Wall of Faces that would live online forever and help people better understand those who gave their lives.

It was an audacious undertaking. But 15 years later, they're missing only 56 people. All of the other 58,262 names are now connected to their faces.

"A few years ago, I would have told you that it was an incredible task," said Tim Tetz, VVMF's director of outreach. "And as we have found more and more volunteers and had more and more media and everyone else got interested, it became that much easier because more people rolled up their sleeves and said, 'Let me help.'"

Those hundreds of volunteers worked with newspapers, families, veterans groups, genealogical sites, anybody who might have a lead on a photo. And the database of pictures grew. It now travels with a replica of the wall on tours around the country, and photos of service members who hailed from those areas are shown on big screens.

"When we started it we began to realize that of the 4 million people who come to the wall each year, more than half were not alive in 1982 when the wall was dedicated," Tetz said.

An even greater percentage were not alive when the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1975.

Adam Stump, a public affairs specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, posts wall updates on the department's website. He's a veteran of Afghanistan, the son and nephew of two Vietnam-era vets. "I have a personal passion for telling these stories," Stump said in an email. "I hope the missing pictures are found so these heroes are not forgotten. We owe a debt of gratitude to all Veterans, especially our fallen."

George Richard Green Jr. was the final Long Islander found. His photo was uploaded in April, after a federal personnel records center closed for a year by the pandemic reopened.

Green was a graduate of North Babylon High School, and according to Newsday reports, worked as a chef before being drafted in 1967. He served in the Army's 20th Engineering Battalion and was helping erect a telephone pole in Pleiku Province when the pole fell on him. He died May 5, 1969. He was 23.

His photo in the Wall of Faces shows a smiling young man brimming with enthusiasm, his eyes open to a world of opportunity and adventure. It's a reminder that war is indeed hell and the price for waging it steep.

"These men and women come alive through their photos, and because of their photos they become timeless and eternal," Tetz said.

Memorial Day is a time for remembrance, whether the memories are personal or impersonal, whether your politics or experience led you to believe in the war or rail against it. It's an occasion for understanding the depth of sacrifice, and the loss that reverberates through the years.

George Green would have turned 76 this year. Now he smiles at us forever.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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