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Perrysburg native honors vets at memorial

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Jeff Smith displays the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart that were awarded to his brother for service in the Vietnam War.

Jeremy Wadsworth Enlarge

First Lt. Nelson Lee Smith was killed in action in Vietnam in 1969. The loss hit his family hard, especially his younger brother, Jeff.

"It's been 38 years and I still have a hard time dealing with it," Jeff Smith, a Perrysburg resident, said.

The recent Veterans Day weekend, however, offered him a measure of peace. Mr. Smith traveled to Washington and participated in the Reading of the Names at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial.

He was among nearly 2,000 volunteers who showed up from across the country to read the 58,256 names inscribed on the wall for 65 hours over four days.

The readings were part of the commemoration of the memorial's 25th anniversary. The names were listed in chronological order, then alphabetically on the date of death.

"Everybody had a two-minute time slot," Mr. Smith recalled. "My reading was Friday evening. I had 30 names. We had a stage set up with a podium."

The readings were a moving experience, he said.

"I made the trip for him," he explained, referring to his brother, who was known by his nickname, Butch.

"I met people I didn't know who just came up to me afterward and thanked me for being there. It was pretty moving to see all the vets there and be part of that. It was a big deal for me," Mr. Smith said. "I got to see my brother's name."

Lieutenant Smith was 24 when he was killed while leading a platoon on a combat mission.

He had graduated from Ohio State University two years earlier, a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

He arrived in Vietnam in 1968 and was killed the following March.

He was the oldest of five siblings, who grew up in Sandusky.

"If you've ever been there, it's a very peaceful place," Mr. Smith said of the memorial wall. "It's a very calm, quiet, relaxing place. It's a wall that heals. It's something you have to experience to understand and appreciate."

The first name reader was Hank Cramer, whose father, Harry Griffith Cramer, died in South Vietnam in 1957.

This anniversary marked the fourth time all of the wall's names were read. The first time was in the National Cathedral in 1982, during the memorial's dedication.

Mr. Smith, for his part, said he wants his brother's sacrifice to be remembered.

"My brother fought for our country and our freedom. Freedom isn't free," he said.

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