PRINCETON -- The Wall That Heals was given an escort fit for a visiting dignitary as 220 motorcycles, vintage cars and trucks took part in the procession Tuesday from Princeton to Paducah along U.S. 62.
The Wall - a three-fourths-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. - is making its first visit to the Bluegrass State since 2009, when it came to Bowling Green. It came to Kentucky from Wake Forest, North Carolina, where it was last exhibited.
This is the first year for the three-fourths-scale Wall. In the previous 22 years, The Wall has been half-scale.
The special trailer hauled by a semi carried a disassembled Wall along with other educational material about the Vietnam War. The Wall will be assembled today in Carson Park, and the exhibit will open at 6 p.m. Thursday with a ceremony. It will be open 24 hours a day until it closes at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
The celebration in Princeton was called a homecoming for Vietnam veterans, providing them with a reception unlike the one many received after coming home from an unpopular war. Riders said they felt honored to be a part of the escort and wanted to show respect to those whose names are etched on The Wall for giving the ultimate sacrifice.
Several of the motorcycles and other vehicles were adorned with American flags and other banners showing a branch of service or the POW-MIA flag.
The semi and as many motorcycles that would fit in the parking area came together behind Morgan's Funeral Home in Princeton for a 1 p.m. sendoff.
Members of the Caldwell County High School Band of Pride played the national anthem as well as a number of patriotic songs. Once the escort volunteers were given a briefing about the route and how to ride along, they mounted up and headed west.
Tim Tetz, the director of outreach for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund that provides The Wall That Heals, said the turnout was "incredibly exciting."
"I think it shows the testament of what they've done to organize it," he said. "You've got the band here. I can't think of the last time we've had a band send us off on an escort. We've got an incredible number of motorcyclists and classic cars. It's really going to be a great escort in.
"It's the magic; it's a homecoming. Many of these veterans never had a homecoming, and those from the Vietnam era are able to take the time and recognize those they served with."
Motorcycles from local organizations helped form the escort for the 50-mile journey. James Hooper of Paducah and Randie Baldree of Mayfield had several volunteers take part, with Hooper bringing 40 bikes and Baldree bringing 28.
Hooper works at Four Rivers Harley-Davidson of Paducah and is a member of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association. He said along with the 40 bikes out of Paducah, he "may have picked up several more along the way here."
"I am extremely pleased with what I see," he said at the escort's starting point. "I'm honored. This is respect. I'm just tickled to be a small part of this. I've been blessed with a lot of friends, and they showed up this morning at the shop to come up here. I'm in awe of it."
Baldree is the senior ride captain of the Patriot Guard Riders, and he brought five other vehicles along with the 28 motorcycles.
"I went to the first meeting (for The Wall's local visit), and they asked us if we would come up and be in charge of the escort, and I said, 'Yes, ma'am, we'd be happy to,'" he said. "The lottery kept me out of Vietnam; I'll put it that way. This is my way of paying back. This is what we call a feel-good mission."
Baldree said the Patriot Guard Riders often do escorts for military funerals and other processions.
"When we do a funeral, we stand out there and most of us wear sunglasses because most of us are crying," he said. "It's just something that gets to you. ... You feel like you're taking some of the worry and the stress away from the family when they've lost a loved one.
"When they come out and see 15 to 20 guys standing there holding an American flag - it's hard to explain unless you've been on one. All my guys, once they get in it, they say they love it, and it's hard to say you 'love' going to funerals."
Bud Smith of Missoula, Montana - an over-the-road driver for 35 years - drove the semi that carried the Wall and other educational exhibits.
"Each year for the last three years, I have hauled The Wall That Heals on different stops," he said. "This year, I will do 20 of the 38 stops. It's an honor and a privilege. I am a former Marine and a veteran. My dad was a World War II, Korea and Vietnam veteran, and I do this in his honor. It's all about the 58,318 names that are on The Wall."