The Volunteers behind The Wall of Faces – Janna Hoehn

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: Janna Hoehn

My journey with the Wall of Faces
By Janna Hoehn

In 2011, I heard about the Faces Never Forgotten/Wall of Faces project on our local news station when they did a story about the search for photos. Ironically, I saw this story at a time that I rarely watch television. When I heard the story, first thing that came to mind is I had a photo of Maj. Gregory Crossman of Michigan.

It all started when I made my first visit to Washington DC and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was first on my agenda. My entire high school years were about Vietnam. I made a random rubbing to go in a scrapbook. Once I returned home, I wanted to see if I could find any information about Gregory. I found quite a bit. I was curious as to what he looked like and decided to try and find his family to give them the rubbing if they had never had the opportunity to visit The Wall. I could not find his family, and later, I found out why. He entered the military in a town he did not grow up in. My cousin is our family historian and I asked her if she could help me find a photo of him. Six weeks later she did. It was a college yearbook photo. I was thrilled to see his handsome face but sad that he was killed in Vietnam. I took the photo and made a page in my scrapbook about Gregory.

Once I sent the photo in, I was contacted by Jan Scruggs (founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund) asking for my help with finding the Maui, Hawaii fallen. I was honored to help with this project. It took me six months to find each of the 42 Maui Fallen. I was elated to complete Maui; however, The Maui News was so helpful writing multiple stories for me, in which many family members who had moved away from Maui, read the story online and contacted me with the photos. It led me to attending a meeting at the Maui County Veterans Council for help. They then asked me to come back to each meeting and give them a progress report. Long story short – I eventually became their secretary (served five years) then was elected as the first female President and first non-veteran to hold the post (this is my fourth year).

When I completed the search for the Maui fallen, I thought I would be thrilled, and I was. I enjoyed meeting so many of the families and knowing how grateful they were that I cared to honor their loved one that I decided to make a display with each of their photos and started booking high schools/libraries/community civic groups to give presentations. It was a huge success. I still take “My Boys” all over Maui.

I enjoyed the process so much in meeting the wonderful families, I decided to find the photos for my hometown, Hemet, California. Once I found all the photos from Hemet, I decided to work on the entire state. I contacted every newspaper in every county that photos were needed, and my journey began. It so touched my heart every time a photo came in. The newspapers were so helpful, and many wrote more than one story to help find the photos. Once I had found approximately 2,000 photos for California, I was having a hard time with the Los Angeles area and made the decision to start working on Oregon and come back to California later. Again – I contacted all the newspapers in each county and the photos came pouring in. Once Oregon was complete, I went on to the state of Washington. One by one – I was able to finish the pacific northwest and started moving east.

Along the way, readers would volunteer to help in their community. Many of them went to libraries and high schools for me. I received many emails from people who wanted to help, however, when they found out how difficult it was – I wouldn’t hear from them again. I am proud to say there are about 12 volunteers who have stayed with me the last five or six years. Everyone has a different method of searching for photos. When I first started, the newspapers were my best bet. Then the libraries and the high schools. This method was very successful.

If it were not for a man named Richard Coffelt, who put together the Coffelt Database website, we would not have had much of this information. He has since passed but I marvel at the thousands of hours he spent giving each of the more than 58,000 service members a profile and making them more than a name.

Jim Reece saw one of my articles and asked if we could work together. I had been working alone until Jim came along. Jim was very good with classmates.com. He would work that end and then I would make any calls needed. A great deal of our team prefer not to make phone calls. I was the person that could. Yes, many times it was a very emotional conversation with a family member. Many times, they cried and so did I. I felt this project was too important to shy away from an emotional phone call. I have met so many wonderful families and friends the past 11 years. Every tear has been worth it.

Over the years, I found other ways to find family and friends. I purchased a subscription to a site that could give me possible contact info for the families. One of the volunteers scours the internet for possible families, sends me the info and I start calling. One volunteer writes a letter to the family. Many emails went out, and sometimes they would be a current email address and current phone numbers. Many times, they were not. We relied greatly on the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. That was a very tedious process where you had to mail an inquiry for each service member, including their service number, date of birth, date of death, etc. Then we’d wait, sometimes months, for the reply from NPRC. Sometimes we would luck out and there would be an ID photo in his file, but some did not have a photo. When the pandemic hit, that source was no longer available to us.

One of my favorite stories is when I began to work on Northern California. I called the Santa Cruz newspaper asking for a story and they were happy to do so. They had known a gentleman who had written a book about all the fallen starting with the Civil War all the way through to Afghanistan. We were connected. The historian had 26 of the 30 photos I needed. When I asked him “what about the remaining four?” He said, good luck dear! He had searched more than eight years for those photos. I told him I would share the photos with him when I found the and he said he sure liked my attitude!

Two weeks later I received a call from the newspaper that a family member of one of the service members I listed didn’t have a computer and asked if I could call him. Thinking it would probably be a photo of one of the 26 I had already, I was elated to hear the name that his brother gave me when I called him. It was one of the four that were still needed. He then proceeded to tell me he was a truck driver from Indiana, and he had to take a delivery to Santa Cruz (where he grew up). He pulled up and they started unloading, while they were unloading, he walked to the little diner across the street to have some breakfast. He grabbed the local newspaper.

Now what are the chances that my story came out the day that this man from the Midwest would be in Santa Cruz? He had his son send me his brother’s photo the next morning. I could hardly wait to call the historian to tell him I had found Jack McKinnon Jr.’s photo. Needless to say, the historian could not believe it. I told him I would call him when I found the others. He didn’t laugh this time. He said he would appreciate that. I did find the other three to complete the 30 photos needed for that county. When I called to give him the photo of the last one, he truly was shocked I found them all. I received an email from a classmate of one of the other four and she said the reason I couldn’t find a photo is that he used his stepfather’s name in high school but had to use his biological name to enter the military. She provided me the photo. That is just one of many stories I have.

This project truly changed my life. I didn’t know any veterans except my uncles until this project crossed my path. I know so many now and they are some of the most generous, selfless individuals I have ever met.  I will always be grateful for this project. It has been the most important work I have done in my lifetime! My wedding floral business didn’t hold a candle to my feelings about this project. And I have loved my career in flowers!

When Jan Scruggs asked for my help, he saw how dedicated I was after completing Maui. He said to me, “realistically, we will not find all of the photos.” My reply was, “maybe you won’t” and I laughed. There were 32,000 photos needed when I began my journey. I don’t know why that number didn’t scare me. I just looked at it and said I will take each state one by one, and I did!

I am thrilled beyond words that the project is completed. I could not have done this without all the wonderful volunteers that offered their help and stayed with me all these years. The newspapers held a key role in finding these precious photos. I am so grateful for each and every volunteer, each newspaper, every magazine that agreed to do a story for a little lady from Hawaii. I don’t have words to actually describe the feeling of finishing this project.

Thank you for this amazing opportunity to honor our Vietnam Fallen and all Vietnam Veterans.

Aloha Janna Hoehn