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Vol. 20, no. 4
August/September 2017

 

Hoehn’s Heroes 
Story By: Paul Wood

“I never dreamed I would be part of something so grand,” says South Maui resident Janna Hoehn. Six years ago she visited “the Wall”—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. It was a brisk October day with pewter skies, and the immensity of the black monolith, engraved with the names of the 58,300 American soldiers killed and missing in Vietnam, struck her hard. But no one she knew was on that wall. Reaching out to touch the polished granite, she wondered, “Why is this affecting me so much?”

Hoehn is a professional florist who has raised two children and maintains a thriving business. But the Wall took her back to her high school days, when she was being directly affected by the Vietnam war: Two of her cousins survived the war, and she remembers feeling disturbed by the often hostile reception that returning veterans encountered.

Touching the Wall revived those latent emotions, so Hoehn picked a name at random—one Gregory Crossman, MIA—and made a rubbing. Once home on Maui, Hoehn grew curious about who Crossman was, so she began a search for his history. Unable to find any of Crossman’s family, she enlisted the aid of a cousin (“the family historian,” she says), who found his high school yearbook picture from somewhere in Michigan. Hoehn put the photo in her scrapbook and closed it.

Two years later Hoehn saw a local TV spot about the Faces Never Forgotten project, the current campaign of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Founded in 1979 by Jan C. Scruggs and other vets, the VVMF dedicated the Wall in 1982 and has since been trying to collect a photo of every Vietnam soldier killed or missing. The goal is to create an education center that will complete the memorial in DC as well as a “Wall of Faces” online memorial. Hoehn sent in her contribution: Crossman’s photo.

A week later she received an email from Scruggs himself. Crossman was among the thousands of soldiers for whom there had been no photo. Would she be willing, he asked, to locate photographs of the Maui veterans not yet documented? She agreed. She searched the Maui phone book, then high school yearbooks. She researched abandoned plantation camps and spent hours scanning through microfiche at Kahului Library. The Maui News ran a few stories on her efforts, and readers responded. After six months Hoehn had found photos of all forty-two undocumented Maui County vets.

Once finished, she says, “I thought I would be thrilled, but I was a little sad.” She couldn’t shake the gratitude from the people her work had touched—families who now consider her part of their ‘ohana; the daughter who said, “You’re the first person in forty years who mentioned my dad’s name”; the sister who said, “He was my best friend, and a day hasn’t gone by that I don’t wonder how it would have been …”

So Hoehn kept going. She set out to raise $1,000 for each fallen Maui vet to donate to the VVMF Education Center, and she quickly surpassed that goal. She created a sixteen-foot display board and took it to schools, libraries, churches and civic groups. She stood in front of the Kahului Walmart, where men wept upon seeing her display.

Hoehn continues to search for the missing Hawai‘i vets (ten to go). She’s found all six from her hometown of San Jacinto and hopes to cover the rest of California. She’s found Washington, Idaho and Oregon vets—1,200 photographs in all so far. But with some twenty thousand names awaiting faces, she’s got a life’s work in front of her.

Last Memorial Day, Scruggs invited Hoehn back to the Wall, this time to give a speech. Nervous and alone in her hotel room before the ceremony, she burst into tears. “Oh, my word,” she thought, “I can’t fall apart like this.” But after CNN anchor Jake Tapper introduced her to the audience of two thousand, she walked to the podium with the Wall behind and felt a calm such as she had never experienced. “I know it was my Maui boys,” she says. “They were all standing behind me.” HH

Have a photo of a killed or missing Vietnam veteran? Email Janna Hoehn at neverforgotten2014@gmail.com.

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