The Volunteers behind The Wall of Faces – Andrew Johnson

The Wall of Faces, vvmf.org/wall-of-faces

VVMF recently announced that at least one photo had been found for each of the 58,281 service members listed on The Wall. This effort was completed for dozens of dedicated volunteers across the country. Over the next seven days, we’re highlighting the stories of some of these volunteers in their own words about what it meant for them to take part in this effort. Today we highlight: Andrew Johnson

My journey in helping find Wisconsin Faces and beyond

By Andrew Johnson
Father of 1LT David Johnson, KIA Afghanistan 1-25-12

It was January 2014 when I read about Wisconsin Public Radio and Television’s efforts to join the VVMF’s efforts to find a photo of every Wisconsin service member who was listed on The Wall in Washington, D.C. At that time, there was a plan to build an Education Center that would include displays of the photos and a temporary place to honor current military KIAs from Iraq and Afghanistan until a permanent memorial could be built. I immediately sensed I could make a meaningful impact on the project as a Gold Star father and a small hometown newspaper publisher.

When I joined the project, there were approximately 24,000 photos missing, including 450 from Wisconsin. This meant that more than half of the photos from Wisconsin had already been found. Many people deserve recognition for finding those photos, especially Bryce Kelly of Medford, who is credited with finding more than 500 photos in the initial effort. In my mind, Bryce and volunteers like him, were real heroes for their dedication and persistence as caring citizens. Also, many military family members uploaded photos of their loved ones directly to the VVMF website.

I had the good fortune to have been the president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association (WNA) in 2010 and was a board member of the National Newspaper Association (NNA) and later its president in 2018. Hundreds of people who are part of these organizations had a large impact on finding thousands and thousands of the missing photos.

I recognized that community newspapers in Wisconsin as well as all over the country could significantly contribute to the effort of finding the missing photos. The use of local newspapers for such an effort made a lot of sense. Who knows their local communities better than local newspaper people? I made a presentation to the WNA board of directors in February 2013 and asked for the support of the WNA and its members to provide assistance to the effort and they gave their full support immediately. I contacted Jeffrey Potter, Marketing Director of Wisconsin Public Radio at the time, and offered the help of more than 200 Wisconsin newspapers in finding the photos. We worked with Jeff throughout the project in Wisconsin.

I then went to Washington D.C. in March of 2013 with a small group of newspaper publishers representing the National Newspaper Association, and offered a team from VVMF led by Lee Allen, the assistance of community newspapers from across the country. At that time, only one state had found all its photos: New Mexico. The VVMF team was excited about the “juice” we put into the effort. I asked Lee to be a featured speaker at the NNA convention in October 2014. At this convention, he asked newspapers from all over the country for help, and many newspaper publishers immediately stepped forward to help. By Memorial Day 2016, Wisconsin and nine other states and four others closely behind, had located all of their photos. More than 10,700 photos had been found since newspapers from across the country joined other volunteers in the effort.

2016 Wisconsin Faces Memorial Day Sections Published

The weekly newspaper I owned in May of 2016 published a special section that displayed all the Wisconsin Vietnam Fallen Faces, the first of its kind in the United States. The cover had photos of service members from the newspaper’s coverage area. The section was used as a role model for other states as they found all their photos. All the photos and stories in the section were made available free of charge to all WNA member newspapers for publication near Memorial Day. Many Wisconsin newspapers published the entire collection of more than 1,100 photos from Wisconsin. There were four reasons for publishing all the photos in Wisconsin newspapers. First is to bring awareness of the great sacrifices Wisconsin service members and their families gave (and many are still giving) in the Vietnam era. Adding photos to the list of names on The Wall tell more of the story. Second is to bring awareness and the need for funds to support the work at VVMF. Third, by bringing attention to the project, many newspapers and other media did follow-up stories about the lives of the heroes who gave their lives for our country in Vietnam. Finally, the section was digitally archived at the Wisconsin Historical Society since they were published in Wisconsin newspapers.

It was a huge team effort by many players who made finding all the photos in the Wisconsin VVMF Faces project possible. I give my sincere congratulations to all who worked on the Wall of Faces project. However, we must never forget that the photos represent real people who lived and died for our country. They have families (Gold Star families) who still bear scars of the great cost of war. The sacrifices of these service members as well as all U.S. service members killed in the line of duty must always be remembered. The price of freedom is very expensive. It is only fitting that every photo found be published on the first Memorial Day after all the photo files and information from Wisconsin could be assembled for publication. Further, the digital archives of the photos and related stories will now be available for all generations to come!

Final thoughts

 I continued to work with newspapers, NNA, many state press associations, and people working in the newspaper business all over the country on finding the remaining missing photos. The NNA made its last huge national push to find the remaining photos in September 2018. I continued to work on the project until I sold my newspapers in March of 2020. By that time, most states had found all their missing photos and the number of photos missing was in the hundreds.

It was an amazing journey filled with many challenges and rewards. It was an honor to serve our great republic by honoring Vietnam heroes by helping the effort to find their photos. The people from the VVMF, many Vietnam Veterans, newspaper people, and a host of other volunteers, were awesome to work with on this project. I would like to especially recognize Heidi Zimmerman from VVMF for all her help in working with the newspapers. She personally came to several newspaper conventions and served as an important link between the media and VVMF. As I worked on the project, many Vietnam veterans embraced me and let me know how much they loved my son and would never forget him as they were often forgotten. In turn, I would always tell them “Welcome home; you and your fallen military buddies will never be forgotten…in part because of the FACES project.” I can’t say enough how proud I am to be an American. I hope that my efforts on this project honored all our country’s heroes who gave their all, including my own son, 1LT David Johnson.

Congratulations to all who made completing the mission of finding all of the photos for the VVMF Wall of Faces project possible! Well done!