By Art Giberson
The strain was beginning to take its toll on both Lenny and Gloria, when Lenny received a phone call from a fellow Marine he had become close friends with in Vietnam.
The friend, Rusty Davis, asked the Collins' to visit him and his wife in Pensacola, Fla. The Collins' accepted the invitation and six days later bought the house next door to Davis.
Surrounded by new friends, in a new location, Collins started to emerge from his shell. On the surface, all appeared perfectly normal. Lenny had managed to completely erase Vietnam from his memory. When filling out job applications or other forms he routinely wrote "None" in the block that asked about military service. For Lenny Collins, now the father of two daughters and successful businessman, life was about as good as it could get. Then in December 1987, a local veterans group--Vietnam Veterans of Northwest Florida--brought the Moving Wall, a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to Pensacola.
Up until this time Collins wasn't aware of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial--the memorial was dedicated in 1982. Other than a few close friends, such as Davis and another former Marine from Collins' hometown, George Drobnack, who Collins had persuaded to come from Pittsburgh to work with him, he had made no contact with other Vietnam veterans.
"When the Moving Wall was set up in (Pensacola's) Seville Square in December, 1987, George tried to talk me into going with him to see it. I wasn't sure what the Wall was, but I did know that if it had anything to do with Vietnam I wasn't interested," Collins recalls. "But George was persistent. 'We own it to our friends and classmates that didn't come back,' " he insisted. Finally I agreed. I remember it was a cool, Wednesday evening, with a slight drizzle falling. George and I got to Seville Square just as a bugler from the Pensacola Naval Air Station began playing Taps. Through the mist, the park lights, decorated with red ribbons for the holidays, cast an eerie glow over the park and the black, V-shaped object that had been placed there. It was a strange, hypnotic scene. Suddenly, for the first time in years, I thought about the friends I had lost in Vietnam."
Still, Collins was reluctant to venture into the park. He sat down on the steps of a small Italian restaurant across the street from the park, completely unaware that tears were flowing freely down his cheeks. The owner of the restaurant observed him for a few moments, and then set down beside him. She too was crying. "I lost a brother in Vietnam," she told him, "but I can't bear to go over there and look for his name. The emotional strain would just be to much."
"We talked for about an hour," Collins remembers, "before I decided that no matter how painful it might be, I had to visit the Wall. I went to a pay phone, called Gloria and asked her to get the girls and meet me at Seville Squire. 'We're going to visit the Wall' I told her."
That phone call changed Lance/Cpl. Lenny Collins' life. For the first time he found that he wasn't the only Vietnam veteran who had gone through a period of denial. Every veteran he talked with that night said pretty much the same thing... "We've all been riding an emotional roller coaster since returning to 'The World.' Sometimes it's very painful. But it's something we have to deal with."
The night before the Wall was scheduled to leave his adopted hometown, Vietnam Veterans of Northwest Florida, staged a candlelight vigil. "The emotion was overwhelming," Collins remembers. "People, many in their 40s and 50s, were standing around openly weeping. We need something like this in Pensacola, I said to Gloria. There's something magic here. What else could create this kind of emotion? A man standing next to us said, 'You're right.' and handed me his card 'Call me after the holidays' he said, 'and we'll talk about it.' I said OK and put the card in my pocket without bothering to look at the name."
With the Wall gone and the holidays descending upon him, Collins felt himself slipping back into a state of depression. "When they took the Wall away, it was as though every emotion I'd ever felt was suddenly stripped away," he recalls. "For a brief time, while the Wall was here, I was able to visit with my friends. Now my buddies that had been killed in Vietnam were gone again. How could I get them back?"
Those thoughts haunted the former Marine throughout the Holidays.
Then sometime in January 1988, he remembered the card he had been given. He dug it out and read the name. "Mayor Vince Whibbs." He called the mayor and set up an appointment to talk with him about the possibility of creating a Vietnam veterans memorial in Pensacola. Mayor Whibbs was supportive, but concerned about gaining public support for a memorial dedicated to only one group of veterans. The City Council, he suggested, might be more receptive to donating land for an all veterans park.
The Marine was confronted with the first of many major obstacles he would have to overcome before his dream of a Pensacola Vietnam Veterans Memorial could become reality. It was obvious that he would have to maintain a delicate balance between the emotions of Pensacola's Vietnam veterans and political reality? He contacted the Vietnam Veterans of Northwest Florida (VVNF) and proposed building a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Pensacola.
A few weeks later, VVNF initiated a committee, co-chaired by Collins and another Vietnam veteran--Nelson Wellborn--who had also proposed building some sort of Vietnam veterans memorial in Pensacola, to do a study and recommend a possible location for a memorial. The committee unanimously adopted the idea for a "Wall South." Collins and Wellborn, who had lost a leg in Vietnam, next approached the city and requested permission to build the memorial in a popular site known as Bartrum Park. Although Bartrum Park was very scenic and close to where the Moving Wall had been, it was to small for such a memorial. The city council recommended a former minor league baseball park as an alterative site. In the meantime the veterans commenced holding a series of fund raising events.
Because of the illegalities involved in fund raising and acquiring tax exempt status, the VVNF Wall South Committee soon evolved into the Wall South Foundation.
Over the course of the next two years, VVNF members washed cars, held road blocks, sold T-shirts, put on concerts and sponsored a variety of other activities to try and raise the estimated $1 million it would take to build the Wall South. Collins and Wellborn continued their meetings with local and state elected officials to outline their proposal and solicit their support. Some government officials were opposed to the idea, but most, like Mayor Whibbs and Florida Senator W.C. Childers, were very supportive. "Vietnam veterans," said Senator Childers, "have done a great deal for Florida and the nation. They shouldn't have to stand on street corners, hold car washes and pass the hat to raise money for a memorial."
The senator then asked the Florida Legislature to appropriate $1.1 million for the construction of a Veterans Memorial Park, which would include Wall South.
On Oct. 24. 1992, Veteran's Memorial Park, featuring the Wall South became a reality. "I wanted to prove to myself, and for my friends, whose names are on the Wall, that Vietnam veterans are not losers as some people have made us out to be," said Collins. "I wanted to show that the men and women who fought in Southeast Asia are winners. Wall South shows that if you put a handful of Vietnam veterans together, they can do things that no one thought was possible. Wall South is proof that Vietnam veterans have the power to overcome any adversity--just like we had the power and the will to win in Vietnam, if we had been left alone to get the job done."
While there can be no dispute that the true memorial to those Americans who were killed or listed as missing in action are the 58,217 names engraved on the black granite panels of Wall South, neither can there be any dispute that the name "behind the wall" is Lance Corporal Lenny Collins, United States Marine Corps.