Heartbreak, Hope in Quest to Add 74 Names to Vietnam Memorial

PHOTO: A visitor at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington passes early in the morning on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2013, to look at the names inscribed on the wall.

Just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C. stands a large, black stone wall, more than 245 feet in length. Etched in its reflective surface are 58,286 names of U.S. service members who lost their lives decades ago a half a world away.

This is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but some believe it is incomplete.

Nearly 40 years after the war’s end, some families are still fighting for their loved ones’ service to be recognized, and for their names to be inscribed onto the slab of smooth granite.

On a wall with more than 58,000 names, how hard is it to add another 74? Harder than you might think.

The Story of the USS Frank E. Evans

For more than three years, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has been working with members of the Frank E. Evans Association, a group of former service members and families, who have long been fighting to have 74 names added to the memorial. The names belong to men who lost their lives aboard the USS Frank E. Evans during the war, and have been left off the memorial, they say, because of a technicality.

But a new push by Schiff to have Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recognize these fallen servicemen has brought new hope to the families. Schiff recently met with Hagel, a Vietnam vet himself, to ask for help.

“I found their story very compelling -- how long and hard they’d been trying to seek recognition on the memorial -- and it seemed very unjust,” Schiff said in a recent interview with ABC News. “Their families were not being recognized.”

Indeed, for the California congressman, the story hits close to home. One of his constituents lost his father on the Evans, and brought the story of the ship to Schiff.

After leaving the United States for Vietnam in March 1969, the USS Evans arrived in Vietnamese waters in early May. It served as naval gunfire support until the end of the month when the ship left its post to get more supplies. While reloading, the Evans was ordered to take part in a training exercise with 40 other vessels in the South China Sea. It was during that exercise that the Evans collided with an Australian aircraft carrier, the Melbourne, ripping the Evans in half.

Stephen Kraus, the vice president of the Frank E. Evans Association, was on duty that night.

“I knew we were going to hit,” Kraus said, recalling his effort to warn shipmates of the impending disaster. “[I] screamed ‘We’re going to get hit!’ and then it happened.”

PHOTO: The remaining portion of the USS Frank E. Evans after its collision with an Australian Aircraft carrier in June 1969.
Courtesy The USS Frank E. Evans Association
PHOTO: The remaining portion of the USS Frank E. Evans after its collision with an Australian Aircraft carrier in June 1969.

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.”

PHOTO: Gary, Kelly Jo and Gregory Sage are photographed in uniform just before their departure to the USS Frank E. Evans. The three brothers served together on the ship.
Courtesy Sage Family Photo
PHOTO: Gary, Kelly Jo and Gregory Sage are photographed in uniform just before their departure to the USS Frank E. Evans. The three brothers served together on the ship.

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.”

New Hope?

Members of the Evans Association have tried fruitlessly for years to have their fallen comrades and family members recognized. Three previous attempts to create legislation to add the names did not get far -- all three failed to make it out of congressional committees.

So, members of the Association and Schiff, the California lawmaker, decided to take a more direct route: lobby the Pentagon.

The secretary of defense can order names added to the memorial, but the congressman said his lobbying attempts on two previous secretaries had little traction. Schiff said he is hopeful that the first Vietnam veteran to serve in this position will help Kraus and the rest of the Evans Association in their effort. But the department has refused to show its cards.

“Rep. Schiff discussed his concerns during a visit to the Pentagon,” Lt. Commander Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement to ABC News. “The Department is aware of the representative's concerns."

No matter what, Kraus promises his group will not give up.

“We’re not quitting,” he said. “We're going to keep pursuing it and pursuing it and pursuing it until someone realizes this is the right thing to do.”

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