Over the last seven months, Hayley Falk has been preparing.
Along with a dedicated group of volunteers, her helpful committee, and her father, Jeff Falk, Hayley, 18, has been working to make sure everything is set for the arrival of a special “guest.”
It’s been 15 years since a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall first set up at Bartlem Park in Cheshire, and Hayley has spearheaded an initiative to bring it back this spring. With the official announcement made last September, the clock is now ticking towards the moment when the wall is erected on June 1.
“It’s gone by so quickly,” said Hayley. “When we first announced (the wall would be coming), it was like, ‘OK, we have (almost) a year.’ Now, it’s going to be here in just a few weeks.”
Hayley is the founder of Because of the Brave, the local organization created to honor veterans and help with causes directly dealing with former military personnel. Hayley comes from a family of veterans, including her father, Jeff, who is a current sergeant at the Cheshire Police Department and a Navy veteran, and her grandfather, Don Falk, a veteran who served in Vietnam.
With such a family legacy, it only made sense to the teenager that a community-wide event honoring veterans, especially those who served in the Vietnam era, would be appropriate for the Town of Cheshire.
“We really do feel like Cheshire is a very patriotic town,” said Jeff Falk. “We knew this was the kind of project — not an inexpensive one — where we were going to need to have the backing of the town, and everyone was just very supportive right from the start.”
The event is being sponsored by Because of the Brave, in partnership with the Bozzuto’s Hometown Foundation and the Town of Cheshire. Donations and support have come from the entire community, including real estate agent Phil Giampietro, a former Cheshire police officer, who Jeff Falk described as the event’s “biggest supporter,” and Bob Bush, owner of Cheshire Sport Center, who helped to secure initial funding.
“Bob donated those T-shirts (in honor of John Gravil, a Cheshire resident who was killed in action in Vietnam), and the money raised went to the initial deposit for the wall,” explained Jeff Falk. “People have been proactively contributing … We have had people reach out right from the beginning.”
The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall is a 3/5ths-scale replica of the monument in Washington, D.C., and stands roughly 6 feet tall and nearly 300 feet long. Like the original wall, it is a chevron shape and has 140 numbered panels on which the names of the more than 58,000 who perished fighting the war are engraved.
The wall was created in 1985 by a Florida-based organization called Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard (VVB) for the purpose of being able to travel to communities in that state and across the country.
It is a different version of the replica that was set up in Cheshire back in 2007, which was “The Wall That Heals,” sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. However, the specs of the replicas are similar.
The visiting memorial currently has 58,311 names, the exact number on the Washington D.C, memorial.
In anticipation of the wall’s arrival, Hayley has been doing interviews with local veterans, creating short videos of the men sharing their memories. It’s been an eye-opening experience for the teenager.
“I knew (many) of them, but I didn’t really know them the way I do now,” said Hayley. “I know their stories now. I know what they (went through).”
“I really want to educate the youth,” she said, “and the videos are a perfect example of that.”
Jeff Falk credited the environment created by Hayley for putting the veterans at ease.
“When you’re doing the interviews, it’s just us and (the veteran) and the array of the emotions,” said Jeff. “Sometimes you’re laughing, sometimes there are tears. But Hayley has this way … she just can make them feel so comfortable.”
One recent interview, with a longtime family friend, took Jeff off guard as, for the first time, the veteran began opening up about his experiences during the Vietnam War.
“Here was this person I’d known (for a long time), and to hear his experience …,” said Jeff. “These are stories he hadn’t even told his (family).”
In addition to the interviews, Hayley also organized dinners for veterans, allowing them to meet and enjoy time together. Jeff explained that one of the venues for the dinners has been Viron Rondo Osteria, and that it was owner Viron Rondos who reached out to offer his services.
Hayley recalls one time, during dinner, sitting with a veteran and listening to him share his story. “He was talking about being stranded in Vietnam, fighting for his life,” she said. “I just felt so humbled to be able to hear his story.”
One of the main components of the dinners, however, has been their free-flowing nature. The veterans just talk amongst themselves, about anything and everything.
Jeff recounted how, during one dinner that gathered men who served around the same time as did his father, the group spent much of their conversation talking about high-school days and their memories.
“I think what the vets appreciate is that they are just being taken out to a nice meal,” said Jeff.
“Every step (Hayley) has taken has been the right one, for the right reasons,” he continued. “When we’ve requested interviews, there’s been no pressure — it’s totally up to them. It’s just been done the right way.”
One of the last interviews to be done before the arrival of the wall was with Cheshire native and Medal of Honor recipient Harvey “Barney” Barnum. Hayley and Jeff traveled down to Virginia late in April, where they were invited to stay overnight at Barnum’s home.
Barnum was so impressed with the work Hayley has done in preparing for the arrival of the wall that he recently nominated her for a prestigious award that’s connected to the Medal of Honor.
“A lot of veterans are just amazed at what Hayley has done at such a young age,” said Jeff. “Hayley is doing this because she cares, because she’s compassionate about what (the veterans) have done.”
Now that the countdown has begun to the arrival of the wall, Hayley is beginning to feel excited. Mostly, she’s excited for her generation, the younger generation, to truly learn about the sacrifices of all veterans, and the Vietnam vets in particular.
“I can’t wait for the students to be able to come over and see this history,” said Hayley. “I can’t wait for them to be able to learn the stories of these veterans and hear what they experienced. They will finally hear from them.”