By David Fleet
Grace Wojtalewicz never met Gerald Collier.
But on a spring day earlier this month in Washington DC, the two—generations apart—connected.
Wojtalewicz, 14, a Goodrich Middle School eighth grade student recently made the 500 mile trek from Goodrich to Washington DC with 100 classmates as part of the14th annual class trip. The five day excursion included Smithsonian museums, the Pentagon Memorial, WWII Memorial; Korean, Lincoln, FDR, and Jefferson memorials, the White House, the Capitol, the National Cathedral, and Mt. Vernon.
While the historic landmarks of Washington, D.C. are signficant —for Wojtalewicz the 246 feet, 9 inches long Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall —etched with names of those men and women for their service in southeast Asia was significant. According to the U.S. National Park Service, the highest point of the wall is 10 feet -1 inch high and tapers to a height of 8 inches at each end. The wall listed 58,191 names when it was completed in 1983; as of May 2015, there are exactly 58,307 names, including eight women. Approximately 1,200 of these are listed as missing—MIAs, POWs and others.
“I needed to find Panel E11, Line 76,” she said. “When you see all the names it just takes your breath away, but when you see the name and realize there’s a family behind it—that just changes everything.”
With the help of attendants along with classmates, Wojtalewicz placed a sheet of paper over the recessed lettering and using the side of a pencil created the rubbing of her great uncle Gerald J Collier.
“It was amazing I am related to one of those names on the wall,” said Wojtalewicz. “There were so many names on that wall. It was unreal. The wall goes into a valley, on the left are those that died early in the war and then to the right those who died later (in the war). The time span seems really long. When I first saw the wall, I realized without help I couldn’t find Uncle Jay’s name on there—it would have taken months to locate. Also there were so many other people looking at the wall just like I was. There were flowers and letters at the base of the wall people had left behind.”
Army Spc. 4. E 4 Gerald “Jay” Collier, Jr., 25th Infantry Division, died Oct. 15, 1966 in South Vietnam from multiple fragmentation wounds only one week before he was set to return to his home in Essexville, Mich. He had been in Southeast Asia since Jan. 4 1966. For his sacrifice Collier received two Purple Hearts. He was 23.
“Jay got his draft notice in November, Friday the 13th,” recalled Marsha Munch, 66, the sister of Collier who was 16-years-old when her brother died. “He read the letter from the draft board and said, ‘I’m going deer hunting.’ Then he walked out the door—I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Collier was stationed in Hawaii before going to Vietnam, said Munch.
“Jay would write to my mom and I back home when he was in Vietnam,” she said. “My birthday is Oct. 25 and the last letter he wrote me asked me what I wanted for a present,” she said. “‘I just want you to come home,’ I replied to him in a letter. I’m not sure if he ever got that letter. He never wrote back.”
Munch recalls the day the soldiers came to the family home in Essexville.
“It was a dreary cold day in October—it was a Saturday,” she said. “When we saw the car pull up to the house we all kind of knew what happened. Mom, Dad and I were home at the time—we all took it very hard. Jay was just about ready to come home—just a few more days. Dad had me stay home from school for about two weeks afterwards. It was easier on Mom.”
Jay volunteered for guard duty that last day, said Munch. He was stationed at Cu Chi Base Camp, a U.S. Army and Army of the Republic of Vietnam facility in the Cu Chi District northwest of Saigon in southern Vietnam.
“He volunteed for guard duty for a friend that day—he did not have to be out there,” she said. “Over the years I’ve met a few of the other soldiers who knew Jay while he was in Vietnam.”
Munch was invited to attend a 50th anniversary gathering of some of the soldiers that served with Jay later this year at Ft. Benning, Ga. She has been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall about five times over the years.. “The first time I saw all those names was just so overwhelming—I was just speechless.”