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A Permanent Home for the Brave: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Retires in Altoona
Bell Atlantic Employee Instrumental in Bringing 'The Wall That Heals' Home; Dedication Ceremony Tonight
May 18, 2000
ALTOONA, Penn. - When Paul L. Johnson is honored tonight for his tireless efforts to recognize the 58,000 lives lost in the Vietnam War, he will remember a unique bond he formed in 1968 with two other teenagers stationed with him on the USS Newport News.
This friendship, along with the many hours he talked with soldiers flown to the ship for brief respites from the horrors of the Tet Offensive, launched Johnson's lifelong quest to ensure that the men and women who served America during the Vietnam War are not forgotten.
"That friendship was a life-changing experience," recalled the 28-year Bell Atlantic employee. "We were among a handful of African-Americans and Hispanic sailors on that ship. We spent hours talking about a war that tore at the very fabric of our country, about the anger and racial strife in our communities back home. We kept a journal. We dedicated ourselves to staying positive, to push hard to foster a broader respect for our veterans and for diversity, when - or if - we returned home."
Johnson went back to his native Altoona in 1972 with grand plans to affect change as a social worker. But as many adults discover, youthful ambitions often give way to an unexpected - and wonderful - calling.
After joining Bell Atlantic in the house services division, Johnson became a Baptist minister, and through his work, he found his calling to serve veterans. Johnson founded a local chapter of Point Man Ministries, providing counseling and outreach to Blair County residents and veterans who served in Vietnam.
And Johnson realized he could do more to bring recognition to the veterans, many still angry and frustrated by their battlefield experiences.
"I never dreamed I'd find a way to honor them through a large granite monument," he said.
Johnson and fellow members of another local veterans group, Fire Base Eagle, heard last summer that a smaller, traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, "The Wall That Heals," had begun to deteriorate and would be replaced by a new version.
Fire Base Eagle decided to buy the wall, which includes the names of all 58,000 American causalities, and retire it in Altoona. Scraping together their membership dues, they had $800. Organizers of the exhibit told Johnson they needed $50,000.
Undaunted, Johnson, as vice president of the Bell Atlantic Veterans Advisory Board in Pennsylvania, along with Fire Base Eagle, approached the Bell Atlantic Foundation, which had already dedicated $25,000 to the exhibit's journey throughout the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region. The company, empathetic to an employee with an exemplary record of community service, chipped in $1,000.
"Paul's dedication to his fellow veterans and love for his country are extraordinary," said Suzanne DuBose, president - Bell Atlantic Foundation. "He is a shining star among our 19,000 employees in Pennsylvania, and his passion for this cause truly is admirable."
Johnson, armed with his company's support and a $5,000 donation from a local restaurateur, appealed to each Altoona resident to give $1 to the cause. The outpouring of community support for the veterans helped raise the rest of the money in 38 days.
Tonight, Altoona residents will see the results of their generosity as the 250-foot African granite monument is unveiled at the memorial's permanent home, the James E. Van Zandt Veterans Medical Center. The United States flag and those of the armed services will surround the wall. Nearby, a visitors center will house memorabilia loved ones leave behind and computers to assist people in locating individual names on the wall.
"I couldn't have accomplished this without Bell Atlantic's help," Johnson said. "In addition to the foundation's donation, the company gave me professional development opportunities that enhanced my leadership skills, bolstered my confidence, and endorsed my can-do approach to life and work. Bell Atlantic supported me in this effort all the way."
Johnson acknowledges he'll need that energy and confidence as he embarks on his next project with Fire Base Eagle -- building a Vietnam veterans history museum in Altoona that will document a typical combat soldier's experience from the time of arrival to the end of his tour of duty. Fundraising for that effort is underway.
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