A Family Lost
Among those who served aboard the Evans were Gary, Gregory and Kelly Sage, three brothers who had requested to serve together. It was choice that anguished their father, Ernest, according to his daughter-in-law, Linda Vaa.
“Ernie was the one always worried about the boys,” Vaa said, recalling his concerns. “‘Well, what if something happened to the boys, with all three of them on the one ship?’”
Vaa was the high school sweetheart of the middle Sage brother, Greg. The two were married, and had in infant son together when Greg left for Vietnam in March 1969.
News that the Evans’ had been involved in an accident left the Sage family in agony for hours. Finally, a call confirmed the worst: All three boys were killed in the collision. The accident left Ernest and Eunice heartbroken.
“Ernie just put all his head in his hand and just kept saying ‘I’ve lost all my boys!’” Vaa remembers.
But the Sage family took comfort that the brothers’ service would be recognized with a place on the memorial. That was until they discovered it would not be the case.
“I kept getting letters [saying] ‘Please donate to the wall because we’re putting this up for all the men who were killed in Vietnam,’” Vaa said. “I got the book and they weren’t in there and I immediately wrote to them and said, ‘you forgot these boys.’”
But the Sage family was told it was no mistake.
The Department of Defense ruled that the names of the Sage brothers -- and those of 71 other who served on the same ship -- would be left off the wall because of the location of the ship at the time of the accident. Although the ship was in Vietnam waters just before the accident, it was 110 miles outside what is known as the “Combat Zone” when its forward section sank.
For the families, Kraus said that seeing a loved one’s name chiseled into the memorial means their life -- and death -- “will have meant something.”
“Without those names,” he said, families felt like “they didn’t mean anything to this country -- and that’s really sad.”
Exceptions Have Been Made
More than 300 names had been added to the wall as of Memorial Day 2013, according to the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Fund. Fourteen new names are slated to be honored on the wall in May. Some of these cases bear a striking resemblance to the Evans tragedy.
One of the exceptions occurred in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan ordered that the names of 68 marines who died in a plane crash on their way back to Vietnam after leave should be honored on the memorial. Because the plane had orders to return to the combat zone, officials decided that their names qualified.
The Evans Association tried to apply this reasoning to the 74 men lost on the ship, but the group was told that there was no official indication that the Evans would return to the combat zone.
In a recent interview, Louise Esola, who has spent four years researching the Evan’s tragedy, and wrote a forthcoming book, “American Boys: The True Story of the Lost 74 of the Vietnam War,” said she disagrees.
“It’s absurd for the Department of Defense to say that there was no proof that the Evans was going back to the gun line, because every ship went back there,” she said.
Adding to the frustration of the families, the ship was supposed to have received its 15th Vietnam Service Medal for the work they did the very day it sank.
“They were outside of the combat zone, but they had to be doing something related to the war to get the Vietnam Service Medal,” Esola said. Other ships that participated in the same training exercise also received this award, as well as the ship that was brought in to tow the surviving section of the Evan’s to shore. “It’s not a mistake. Every other ship received a Vietnam Service Medal for that time period,” Esola said. “They should go on the wall. People have gotten on the wall with less.”