In Memory Day: a measure of solace for families of Vietnam vets

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Decades after its end, the Vietnam War continues to claim victims.

More than 120 of them were posthumously honored Friday at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., as part of the annual In Memory Day ceremony.

The event, held every year since 2003, pays tribute to Vietnam vets who died as a result of their service but who don't meet Department of Defense guidelines to have their names listed on the famous wall.

Among them was Francis Markovich, a Mount Oliver boy who went to war, got wounded, earned a Bronze Star and rarely said a word about any of it before he died in 2009 at age 62.

His family, who drove from Pittsburgh to participate in the ceremony, believes his heart ailments and other health problems were the result of exposure to Agent Orange.

But beyond the fact that he saw combat as an Army sergeant in 1968 and 1969, they know almost nothing about his service.

"He never talked about it," said his daughter, Jennifer Spiegel, 38, of Pleasant Hills. "His brother told us after he died, 'Your dad was shot over there.' We said, 'Really?' We never knew."

His widow, Dawn, 58, said he suffered from heart disease, diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis and retired from Allegheny Ludlum in Midland in 2008 because of the lung disease. He was classified as 100 percent disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But Dawn never learned what really happened to him in the war -- where he'd been, what he'd done. His younger brother, Ron, knew he'd been shot, but even that disclosure came late in his life when the two were reminiscing.

His children knew he feared snakes -- he would kill any he saw -- but only later realized it was a result of encountering vipers in the jungles of Vietnam.

"My husband was very close-mouthed," said Dawn, who lives in Baldwin.

"I think he just preferred to keep it to himself."

It's a pattern typical of Vietnam vets, who fought an unpopular war in turbulent times and returned home to zero fanfare.

"There was no homecoming," said Jennifer. "They came home and scrounged for jobs."

Mr. Markovich went to work in the steel mills, married Dawn in 1973, raised his family in Baldwin.

"I think [Vietnam] was a really rough experience for him," said Jennifer. "My dad was a tough guy. I rarely saw him cry or deal with pain in a way that showed he was in it. That was just something that he had shut the door to."

The memorial wall, once controversial, is the most-visited memorial in Washington, D.C.

Most of the 58,000 whose names are on it died as the result of combat.

But veterans recognized during In Memory Day died years later from various conditions related to the war.

The names of all the honorees are read and certificates bearing their names are placed at the memorial. The National Park Service collects the tributes and stores them in a permanent archive.

The honorees are also included in a virtual honor roll maintained by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, a private group that built the memorial and sponsors In Memory Day.

Some 2.4 million vets served in Vietnam, but no one can say how many of them died as a result of something that happened to them there.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, however, is not interested in proving or disproving anyone's claim. Families only have to fill out an online form to nominate a vet, which includes a death certificate and military service records.

"We don't investigate claims. It's meant to be inclusive," said Lee Allen, communications director.

In Mr. Markovich's case, Jennifer nominated him so her nieces, ages 1 and 2, would have a way to remember their grandfather when they're old enough.

"My dad died four years ago next week, and my nieces never met him," she said. "That's why I did it, so when they get older, they would understand it."

Besides Mr. Markovich, these other Pittsburgh-area veterans were honored Friday at the wall:

• Robert James Benzio of Connellsville. Navy 1965-69, died in 2001.

• Gary Walter Burda of Duquesne. Navy 1968-69, died in 2008.

• Jerry Joseph Foster of Finleyville. Army 1970-73, died in 2005.

• Regis Anthony Franciscus Jr. of Pittsburgh. Army 1968-69, died in 2012.

• David Paul Koston Sr. of Pittsburgh. Army 1962-1968, died this year.

• Harold Leslie McPherson of Kittanning. Army 1965-66, died in 2011.

• Lynn M. Ross of Springdale. Army 1967-69, died in 2007.

• Wilson Atlee Simpson of Pittsburgh. Army 1968-69, died in 1999.

• Raymond Dallas Taiclet of Pittsburgh. Marine Corps 1964-68, died in 1969.

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