By Jared Janzen
HALSTEAD—The list of names etched in small print on black granite seems nearly endless. Each of these names—more than 58,000 of them—represents a son, a brother, a husband, a father or a friend that was killed during the Vietnam War.
The names appear on a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that was on display in Valley Center for five days over the past week. For many people, this was an opportunity to remember the friends or family members lost in the war.
Lifelong Halstead resident Gary Wright knows that feeling of loss. His younger brother, Richard, was killed in the war. He still misses his brother, he said.
“You just had to deal with it,” he said. “I don’t know. It dealt with you more than you dealt with it.”
Gary noted that Richard had polio as a young child and had to be exercised repeatedly to gain strength in his muscles.
“It hurt, but the doctor told him it was the only thing that could save him,” Gary said. “I could see things were getting better. He was more active and had a better attitude. The doctors just kept after him.”
As a young man, Richard and a good friend of his decided to join the military together. They weren’t sure, however, if Richard would qualify due to his history with polio. But sure enough, Richard passed his physical, and both of them joined the Marines. Gary couldn’t recall the name of the friend who had joined with Richard.
According to the Halstead Independent’s archives, Richard was a 1962 Halstead graduate. He had worked as Cessna Industrial Products division in Hutchinson for two years before enlisting in April of 1965. He became a member of the First Battalion, Third Marine Division and went overseas in September.
According to an article published in the Halstead Independent April 8, 1966, Richard “Dick” Wright was the first victim of the Vietnam War from Harvey County. He had died Monday of that week “of chest wounds inflicted in a battle near Da Nang.”
Gary said Richard’s squad had been ambushed and all of them killed.
“They were just on a routine patrol and a big Vietnamese squad jumped them and killed them all,” Gary said. “They went and took the rings off their fingers and watches. They stole everything they had.”
Richard was 21 at the time of his death. If he were alive today, he would have been 77.
“I’m just thinking, but him and another feller, they thought they were auto mechanics,” Gary said. “They were always fixing something up. He could have started a business or something.”
Gary said he’d been the first in the family to find out Richard had been killed. A Marine from Wichita came to tell the family, offering any support necessary.
“It was really a shock when we found out he’d been killed in Vietnam,” he said. “I hadn’t been home very long. I’m going to say maybe five or six months.”
Gary spent about two years serving in the army in Korea, but was in Vietnam briefly on his way home, while Richard was stationed there.
“We tried and tried to hook up, but couldn’t do it because of the situation,” he said. “We were in ‘Nam, but we were far apart. My supervisor tried to get me there. He did the best he could.”
The fact that he never got to see his brother there in Vietnam still bugs Gary to this day.
“Just to say, ‘Hey, how ya doing? Take care. Kick these guys’ butts,’ you know?” Gary said.
Gary said he and his other two brothers—Ted and John—were devastated. His mother, too, couldn’t believe the news and questioned why the U.S. was even over there, Gary remembered. All four of the Wright brothers served in the military, with Ted having served in Germany and John in Vietnam.
One thing that stands out to Gary in his memories from that time is the amount of support the family received after Richard’s death.
“People that I would see on the street would come up and shake my hand and say, ‘Sorry about your brother,’” Gary said.
He added the family had all kinds of offers for help if they needed anything. This happened repeatedly, not just once or twice.
Gary believes Richard was well known around Halstead back then from playing on the Halstead sports teams.
Military members from Fort Riley also reached out to the family. They brought an honor guard out to participate in the funeral service.
Over the years, a lot of the buddies Richard made in the Marines have visited Gary to pay their respects and talk about him.
Gary has seen the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on several occasions in the past, which he said is an emotional experience.
The Halstead community still remembers Richard’s sacrifice to this day. He’s buried at Halstead Cemetery.
“There’s always flowers on his grave,” Gary said. “I don’t know who’s putting them there. The community has been great.”