Finishing a brother’s life’s work

The number of names on The Wall is a small percentage of the number of lives affected by the Vietnam War. Countless Vietnam veterans have died since the end of the war of causes related to the war and there are millions of parents, siblings, spouses and children who lost a loved one in the war. Diane Finnemann’s life changed when only brother, Wallace “Skip” Schmidt, went off to the war.

In 1967, Finnemann’s husband was in the Navy while her brother was in Vietnam. She worked in a machine shop drilling holes into ball bearing cases that would go in military helicopters. When her husband left for a six-month tour, she was pregnant with her first child.

“I lit so many candles at church every week I could have started the place on fire,” Finnemann said.

As Finnemann tried to live her life in the U.S., her 19-year-old brother was participating in the Tet Offensive. PFC

Diane Finnemann with her brother Wallace “Skip” Schmidt

Diane Finnemann with her brother Wallace “Skip” Schmidt

Schmidt was a member of the Marine 2/4 Fox Company in 1967-1968.  On March 12, 1968 his company was on a patrol when they were ambushed in a dried-up rice paddy around Lam Zuam East. A Marine photographer who was so close to going home took shrapnel to his head and neck that would have hit Schmidt. Schmidt promised to get the photographer’s body out as he died in his arms. Before the day was over Schmidt would rescue his team leader, squad leader and several other wounded Marines. The next day he led E company into another bloody massacre, and H Company the day after that. He received the Silver Star for his actions.

At the battle of Dai Do on May 2, 1968 Schmidt’s rifle was shot out of his hands.  Soon after the battle, he was sent back to the U.S. on a medical discharge.

“Skip’s nightmares never stopped and in some ways he never left Vietnam. After getting him to finally go to the VA for help, he quit going after the doctors told him he had a mental disorder,” Finnemann said. “Skip lost his battle to PTSD in 1972 when he hung himself.”

It was only after Schmidt died that Finnemann found his handwritten account of the battle of March 12, 1968. She searched for more than 10 years for the name of the photographer, Richard J. Stewart from East Lebanon, Maine.

“Today, I am so grateful to have contact with Richards’s brother and sister and to have exchanged pictures of our brothers,” Finnemann said.

Finnemann said the memory of her brother motivated her to urge the governor to sign into law legislation designating March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day in her home state of Minnesota. He has since hosted an annual program around that time in honor of Vietnam veterans. Last year over 400 people attended the event and she hopes it will continue to grow.

She has applied the same enthusiasm and dedication to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Faces Never Forgotten program. The program attempts to locate photographs of each of the 58,282 service members honored on The Wall as well as raising money to fund the construction of the Education Center at The Wall.

Wallace “Skip” Schmidt

Wallace “Skip” Schmidt

The Education Center at The Wall will be a place on our National Mall where our military heroes’ stories and sacrifice will never be forgotten.  It is a multi-million dollar, state-of- the-art visitor’s center and learning facility to be built between the Vietnam Veterans and Lincoln Memorials. Visitors will better understand the profound impact the Vietnam War had on their friends and family members, their hometowns and the nation. The Center will feature the faces and stories of the 58,282 men and women on The Wall, honoring those who fell in Vietnam, those who fought and returned, as well as the friends and families of all who served.

“In an interview a few years back, I was asked, why? Why do I do so much for our Vietnam Veterans?  Without thinking, the words came out of my mouth, ‘It feels like I am extending my brother’s life’s work.’  And that is what helps me heal,” Finnemann said. “I believe that this campaign to build the Center and put faces with names is an absolutely brilliant idea. I also believe it is an incredible opportunity to honor our fallen heroes. For Richard J. Stewart, a Marine photographer who died in my brother’s arms; for the 15 Marines from 2/4 Fox Co. who died in the same battle on March 12, 1968; being involved with this campaign is a labor of love, honor, and respect.”