Honor Bound

Veterans take on the task of counting the war dead.

The paper chase: Bob Camburn's war efforts continue tirelessly. - Walter  Novak
The paper chase: Bob Camburn's war efforts continue tirelessly.
In 1996, Bob Camburn was visiting a traveling version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery when he noticed a fellow visitor scanning the names. The man was obviously frustrated, so Camburn asked who he was looking for.

"Sekne," the man answered, explaining he couldn't remember how to spell his late friend's last name.

"Sylvester?" asked Camburn, and rattled off the spelling. Unlike his fellow visitor at the Moving Wall, Camburn didn't know Sylvester Sekne, one of Cuyahoga County's 400-plus casualties of the Vietnam war. But the brief encounter at LakeView, remembered years later with a slight shake of his head and a small smile, demonstrates that Camburn definitely knowsabout him.

As vice president of the Greater Cleveland Veterans MemorialInc. and chairman of the organization's Honor Roll Project,Camburn has compiled volumes of names and biographicalinformation. When he started his research in 1987, heconcentrated on Vietnam casualties. But the parameters have sincebeen expanded to include all of Cuyahoga County's war dead ofthe 20th century.

"The research efforts have been incredible," says fellow Vietnamveteran and volunteer Patrick McLaughlin, president of the GCVM.

Both men have also been active in a related project, which culminates this month when the Moving Wall returns to Cleveland in conjunction with Touch the Names: Letters to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a theatrical production at the Cleveland Play House. McLaughlin chaired the committee of veterans who did fund-raising and advised on protocol for ceremonies at the wall.

The Play House production is a sidelight to the bigger-picture Honor Roll Project, which serves two important functions: setting the local historical record straight and fulfilling a personal mission for its volunteers. The men involved consider it an obligation to those who didn't make it back alive.

"Mostly, this is just a bunch of Vietnam vets who also havefull-time jobs and families," says McLaughlin, a Cleveland attorney. "The government, private industry in Cleveland -- no one has tried to do it except for us, a group of volunteers."It has not been a straightforward undertaking. The Defense Department may know the total number of U.S. casualties in a given war, but establishing the exact numbers from specific locales, like Cuyahoga County, is a different story. "It caught me by surprise when I first realized it," says Camburn. "You expect the numbers to be somewhat precise."

The reason they're not has as much to do with our mobile societyas anything else. Consider the Cleveland native who moved to Sacramento shortly before getting drafted. If he died in Vietnam, his home of record would have been listed as Sacramento, even though his ties to that city were tenuous. Conversely, a Sacramento native who married a woman from Cleveland might have had Cleveland listed as his home.

Also, the guidelines established for the definition of residency change from community to community, notes McLaughlin.

Geography isn't the only confusing factor. "I haven't found anybody who can tell me the criteria used for World War II," says Camburn. He's discovered that some WWII casualties were honored as war dead, even though they died after they returned home -- in car accidents, for instance -- rather than from injuries suffered in combat.

Which brings up another murky issue: men wounded in war whodied a considerable time later of problems related to their combat injuries. "It is not a cut-and-dry thing," acknowledges McLaughlin.

Although every area in the United States faces the same ambiguities, Camburn and McLaughlin know of only one effort similar to the Honor Roll Project. That was undertaken by a Philadelphia reporter who, in 1987, compiled a list of Vietnam war dead from that city.

Inclusion in the Honor Roll Project is limited to servicemen born and raised in Cuyahoga County, who served in designated theaters of operation (for the Vietnam-era veterans, it was Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Communist China, or Thailand), and who died of specific wounds received in war.

As of now, the volunteers have determined that 414 servicemenfrom Cuyahoga County died in Vietnam. For another 29, theirhome of record was listed as the Cleveland area, but it's unclearwhether they were actually from here. "I haven't found confirmation," says Camburn, who culls information from obituaries, news articles, and websites to whittle down the number of questionable names. "It's changing all the time." From the start, it was important to the volunteers to have more than a list of casualties. They want personal information -- where the men went to school, their parish, whether they were in Little League, where they worked, if they went to college. "Bob has spearheaded the effort to search out and find all the names and biographical information on all those persons," says McLaughlin. "That's the hard work -- trying to put together this database that does not exist anyplace else."

Eventually, Camburn hopes to put his thick binders of information onto a website, so that members of the public can offer input.

The names themselves will be added to the Veterans Memorial Plaza, located behind the U.S. Courthouse between St. Clair and Rockwell in downtown Cleveland. The memorial -- the centerpiece of which is a towering Marshall Fredericks sculpture -- currently honors those who died in WWII and the Koreanconflict. The project will add names from the Spanish-American War, World War I, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf, and will correct spelling errors and add missing names from WWII and Korea.

Camburn, a biomedical equipment technician at Fairview Hospital, quietly acknowledges that the project has been a lot of work. "Bob has been very modest," says McLaughlin. "He's spent thousands of hours of his time."

The reason is simple, Camburn says. "The main thing is to make people realize they should see these people the way we see them --not 50 years old, balding with pot bellies. They had a life, they never fulfilled the dreams they had, they never saw their children grow up. We want to make sure everybody knows."

That way, men like Sylvester Sekne won't be forgotten.

Kathryn DeLong can be reached at [email protected].