Mission accomplished: Two veterans put face on WNY's Vietnam casualties

May 15, 2017

This year is the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. "The Wall," as it is known, is marking the anniversary with an extraordinary effort: to literally put a face to every one of the more than 58,000 names on the memorial. Just Monday, because of two local Vietnam War veterans, every Western New Yorker on The Wall will have a face with their name.

As of this year, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial displays 58,315 names of servicemen and women who died in the conflict that has remained a backdrop to American life from its beginnings in the 1950s. More than 500 of those casualties have roots in Western New York.

But who were these soldiers? That is where retired postal employee Patrick Kavanagh entered the picture.

"I just wanted to do something to remember those that served in Vietnam and that were killed in action or died while being over there," he says. "I don't want them forgotten. I don't want their sacrifices forgotten. I don't want their families forgotten."

Kavanagh starting collecting biographical materials from libraries near and far - obituaries, scrapbook items and the like - first chronicling casualties from his native Kenmore.

"And then, I don't know, I just said, 'I gotta keep going. I just gotta keep going on this,'" Kavanagh says. "So then I went to Erie County. I did Erie County. And then finally I said, 'You know, geographically, I'm gonna do the Western New York counties. I feel really passionate about this. I just didn't want them forgotten." 

Over the years, his detective skills continued improving. So after nearly two decades of work, Kavanagh was able to track down at least a photograph for every serviceman and one woman from Western New York who died during the Vietnam War.

That massive database was posted online on Veterans Day in 2015 by Forest Lawn Cemeteries, where Kavanagh was a volunteer historian. That posting sparked a collaboration with another local Vietnam veteran, who helped track down those last two dozen Western New Yorkers whose faces seemed untrackable.

"I do some performances locally and every time I would perform, I'd talk to the audience about it and I had people come up afterwards and say, 'I knew someone' and I'd say, 'Well, I'd love to get their pictures," says Norm Murray, the Nickle City Cowboy. Murray joined Kavanagh's quest as he was raising money for the new $130 million Education Center to be built underground The Wall.

"Some of them were new. Some of them were people we already had a picture of," Murray says. "But one of the important things we're trying to do is build a life story for every name that's on The Wall - and to do that we need more than just one old, fuzzy black-and-white newspaper photograph from 1967. So we've been trying to get additional pictures, additional biographical information, so we can tell the life stories of all of these individuals, whose average age was 22 when they died."

As of just Monday, Kavanagh and Murray have been able to compile a life story for every Western New Yorker who died during the war. They plan to announce their accomplishment at 7 p.m. at Sportsmen's Tavern in Buffalo, where Murray will be performing songs of the war era as a fundraiser for the Education Center.

"They are individuals who had lives until they were cut short," says Murray, "and to have them remembered and to be part of an actual physical Wall of Faces at the new Education Center that is planned to be built in Washington, D.C. will just be a great educational tool for the country, for those who, at this point, Vietnam is just a footnote in the history books. To have their sacrifices honored and their names remembered is very important to me and to so many of us."

Kavanagh says the duo hopes to eventually expand their database to include all New York State Vietnam War casualties and submit those life stories to The Wall and its new Wall of Faces.

The Vietnam War marks one of the most divisive periods in American history. A conflict that began in the 1950s continued as the backdrop of American life well after President Nixon's order to withdraw U.S. troops in 1973. No wonder, "Green Green Grass of Home" was one of the most popular songs of the era. It will be one of many Vietnam War-era songs performed Monday evening.