On Friday morning, Chris Walsh will stand before a group of cadets at St. Thomas Academy and give a five-minute speech about his dad, a 1944 graduate of the Mendota Heights military school.
He'll talk about patriotism and duty to country, using the Memorial Day weekend unveiling of a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to tell cadets about the importance of remembering sacrifice. About loyalty. And healing.
And he'll tell the story of his father, Col. Richard Ambrose Walsh III, who was flying low over the jungles of Laos in 1969 when his A-1 Skyraider was struck by anti-aircraft fire. The next words that came over the radio were ominous: "Sandy's down," using the call sign for a search and rescue mission.
As Chris Walsh plans to speak to cadets to unveil the temporary 375-foot-long replica of the Vietnam memorial — 54 years after his dad's plane went down — he still doesn't know his father's fate.
"The word I use is 'tormented,' " Chris Walsh said. "Just the uncertainty. You can read an article years later and say, 'Oh yeah, he was probably killed.' But we didn't know that. I used to have dreams that my father came back from Vietnam."
Col. Walsh's flight that day — Feb. 15, 1969 — was part of the U.S. military's secret war in Laos. He'd flown some 80 missions from an air base in Thailand, the U.S. involvement in the Laotian Civil War having spilled over from Vietnam.
On that morning, Richard Walsh, 42 years old and a year away from retiring from the Air Force, flew low and slow, drawing fire as Americans cleared out a jungle area and tried to rescue an airman who had ejected from a plane crash the day before. Walsh and three other A-1 Skyraiders suppressed Communist Pathet Lao troops while a helicopter rescued the downed airman. But Walsh's plane was hit. It rolled over twice, crashed into trees and exploded.
Crucially, Col. Walsh had previously requested that, unless there was definitive proof of his death, he be listed as missing in action, not killed in action. His family would receive better benefits if he were listed as missing. The MIA status was, as detailed in a 1991 Star Tribune story, "a lie that had been told as a kindness." Everyone on the mission had assumed there was no way Walsh could have survived. But the informal policy of the 602nd Fighter Squadron was to follow the service member's wishes. In the official report, another pilot — the 602nd's commander — said he looked away to adjust his radio as Walsh's plane was falling, leaving a window of possibility that Walsh had ejected and survived the crash.
Chris, then 6 years old and the youngest of five children, was home in Minneapolis with his mom, Sharon, when a man in an Air Force uniform stepped out of a dark sedan.
The officer walked through snow to the family's Kenwood home and delivered the news. But the information was spare: The officer couldn't say where the crash had occurred. And he couldn't say for certain whether Walsh was dead or alive.
That led the family into decades of uncertainty. Had Walsh died on impact, or had he been taken prisoner in a dark corner of the war that for years was off the books? Sharon Walsh traveled to peace talks in Paris to protest to the North Vietnamese delegation, and she made two trips to Laos to talk with the Pathet Lao and pass out fliers with her husband's photograph.
Back home, she spoke against the war. A decade after the crash, the military changed Walsh's status to KIA in a "presumptive finding of death." That was what happened to all but one of the 1,200 remaining MIAs from the war in Southeast Asia.
The U.S. military has sporadically made efforts to excavate the Walsh crash site, as it has done for thousands of other service members whose remains were never found. A 2018 report from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency indicated Walsh likely died in the crash, but even that report was shrouded in gray: "The pilot remains unaccounted for," it read.
"People think, 'Why are we doing this? Why are we spending money to excavate a 50-year-old crash site?' " Chris Walsh said. "Because that's healing. A symbolic wall is not going to heal me. It has a purpose to teach other people. But it's not going to heal me. Resolving his fate — that's healing."
The Vietnam War still pains families who have had the closure that eluded the Walshes. Vince Troy of Maple Grove will speak Friday at St. Thomas Academy about his younger brother, 2nd Lt. Peter Troy, a 1966 graduate killed in Vietnam at age 21. Troy still tears up talking about his brother — "like half of me just disappeared," he said. Troy visits his brother's gravesite at Resurrection Cemetery down the road from St. Thomas Academy every Memorial Day. Whenever he goes, the gravesite has been recently cleaned.
"His classmates have, for over 50 years, every year gone out and taken care of his gravesite," Troy said.
Chris Walsh, now 60, still feels his dad's presence in his life. He lives in his mother's old home near Lake of the Isles; she passed away in 2020. A military portrait of his dad hangs in a stairwell. Walsh still can't watch war movies. He feels guilt for the damage caused and the lives lost in Vietnam, but he also knows his dad fiercely believed in democracy and fighting communism. He wants the U.S. government to improve benefits for widows and surviving family members of those killed in action so future families don't get stuck in the cloud of uncertainty his family has lived in for so long.
"People think, 'There's war, people die, and that's it,' " Chris Walsh said. "No! It goes on forever. Helping those families resolve the uncertainty, it's so important. I don't think people understand that. That's part of what Memorial Day is, not just to remember their sacrifices but to remember their families left behind. And those families don't have the certainty you might think."
The Wall That Heals, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and a mobile education center, will be at St. Thomas Academy — 949 Mendota Heights Road, Mendota Heights — during Memorial Day weekend.
- Friday at 11:30 a.m.: Opening ceremony with guest speakers, including family members of alumni who died in Vietnam and Academy math teacher Viet Le, a Vietnamese refugee whose father fought for the South Vietnam army.
- Each night at sundown, a cadet will play "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes.
- Monday at 1 p.m.: Closing ceremony with guest speakers and laying of wreaths