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‘They belong on that wall’ — bill to honor ‘Lost 74’ on Vietnam Memorial keeps running aground

President Donald Trump listens as Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., left, speaks during a welcome ceremony with the North Dakota State football team in the State Dining Room of the White House on March 4, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Oliver Contreras/Sipa USA/TNS)

The people who want to add the names of those killed on the USS Frank E. Evans to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington keep running into a different kind of wall: Congress.

Backers took to the Senate floor this week as part of a long-running effort to honor the 74 sailors killed in 1969 when the U.S. Navy destroyer collided with an Australian aircraft carrier.

The cause has been backed over the years by members of both chambers, and this week, Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota tried to get the measure passed by unanimous consent, only to see it rejected when fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska objected. Murkowski said she is committed to addressing the matter but pointed to long-standing criteria and logistical issues that have prevented the addition of their names and others.

“We will find a way to honor these sailors, but at this juncture, there remain practical, legal and technical considerations that we have to resolve,” she said.

Murkowski chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the National Park Service that maintains the memorial. But the agency doesn’t have a say over who is eligible to have their name on the wall — that falls to the Department of Defense.

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In the early morning hours of June 3, 1969, the Evans, a Navy destroyer that had served in conflicts since World War II, was ripped in half during a collision in the South China Sea with the HMAS Melbourne of the Royal Australian Navy. Seventy-four American sailors were killed.

Steve Kraus, now 73, was a 21-year-old signalman of the watch on the Evans the night it was hit during an exercise.

“When I first looked to find (the Melbourne), they weren’t exactly where I thought they were going to be,” he said. “I figured they’re going to be behind us, and they weren’t.”

When he finally spotted the ship, he realized the two would soon collide, so he ran back to the small “signal shack,” alerting the other man on watch and mashing the communications button to let the bridge know a collision was imminent.

“And then we got hit,” Kraus said.

The other man on watch with Kraus was on the shack’s roof at the time of the collision and was thrown from the Evans and onto the deck of the Melbourne, Kraus recalled. He was so gravely injured he spent nearly a year in the hospital.

Kraus, who has lived in California his whole life, said he was left with only minor injuries. But with a pregnant wife at home when the incident happened, he said he still wonders about what his family’s life would have been like if he hadn’t survived.

Over the years, Kraus has heard stories from the families of Evans’ crew members who were killed that looked for their relatives’ names on the Vietnam War Memorial’s wall. Some sent letters to their legislators asking whether they could be added, and in 2003, the USS Frank E. Evans Association was formed to seek recognition for all the sailors who died. Kraus is the president and chairman.

Before the Evans headed to the South China Sea, it operated in Vietnamese waters and was scheduled to return to the war zone afterward.

But because the crash took place outside the geographical limit for the combat zone, the sailors who lost their lives were not eligible under Defense Department guidelines for inclusion on the memorial, said Tim Tetz, director of outreach for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

The fund does not take a position for or against the inclusion of names on the memorial. Under an agreement with the Park Service, the fund is responsible to add names or change status symbols on the wall when directed.

But besides the DOD regulations, carving a new name onto the wall wouldn’t be a simple, Tetz said. The names are carefully arranged by date, and a new panel can’t just be added or extended. Existing space limitations only allow for two long names, a few more medium-size names and “several hundred shorter names,” he said.

Currently, there are 58,276 names on the wall.

“Even with modifications, it’s uncertain. To truly include these in the dignified way that they would deserve, one would have to replace the entire Wall,” Tetz said.

Wherever the line gets drawn, some names will still get left off the wall. Adding the names from the Evans may bring up requests from other other groups, whose members lost loved ones in similar circumstances.

“The last DOD estimate I heard of mentioned approximately 500 individuals were in somewhat similar circumstances as the Evans crew,” Tetz said.

Cramer expressed disbelief that Congress can’t add names to the wall.

“I am yet to hear any opposition to this legislation voiced except by the bureaucrats and special interests who would be charged with making it happen,” he said on the floor Thursday. “The idea that we should continue to turn a blind eye to forgotten veterans because the work would be ‘substantial’ is ludicrous. The country which landed a man on the Moon the same year these sailors died can’t figure out how to fix a wall honoring them?”

Since the wall’s completion in 1982, there have been only a few times where many names were added at once. One notable example occurred in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan secured the addition of more than 50 names of service members who died on a 1965 plane crash departing from Hong Kong back to the war zone.

Kraus pointed to that crash as an example of why the names of those lost on the Evans should also be included on the memorial.

“They deserve to be on that wall, so anything else other than that is just a slap in the face,” he said. “It’s a fact. They belong on that wall.”

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© 2020 CQ-Roll Call

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