Gaining recognition for a fallen brother
By Michael Papa
In the early morning hours of August 12, 1968, Specialist William Gabrielsen and Lieutenant James O’Connor prepared for a reconnaissance mission to track enemy troop movements across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in North Vietnam. Recognizing there was no film drive in the infrared sensor camera, O’Connor sent Gabrielsen into the dark and driving rains of monsoon season. Within moments O’Connor heard a crashing sound. He jumped from the aircraft, and walked around the nose of the plane where he saw Gabrielsen lying on the ground bleeding from a deep gash in the back of his head; Gabrielsen had walked into a rotating propeller.
Gabrielsen—a native of Frankfort, Michigan—was treated at several Army hospitals before he wound up at the Veterans Hospital in Ann Arbor. Having never regained consciousness, he died on March 10, 1970.
What followed was a decades-long quest to have Gabrielsen’s name added to the roll of the honored fallen in Vietnam.
Discovering the Story
In 2015, I was sitting with Bill Hollenbeck in a small coffee shop in Glen Arbor. Two men in their late 70s approached. One had just returned from Vietnam; he had been visiting some of the places where he had served during the war. They all shared stories of their service and how it shaped their youth.
“We all have tales to tell,” Bill said. But I had never heard Bill talk about Vietnam before in the 14 years I had known him. I would soon find out why.
One week later, in the same coffee shop, Bill was sitting down across from me. He told me of the 25-year process of fighting to add Gabrielsen’s name to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—known as the “Wall.”
“This is a story people need to hear,” I said to Bill.
“I did nothing remarkable,” he responded “I just did what needed to be done.”
Adding Gabrielsen’s Name to the Wall
In his home office located on a country road in Leelanau County, Bill started tapping away on a typewriter in 1988. In those early years of letter writing, he would drive to the post office and then wait weeks for a response.
Starting in the late 1990s and onward, he would sit at his computer sending emails—again, often waiting weeks for responses, because of the crawling pace of bureaucracy. Bill was a close friend of Ed Gabrielsen, the younger brother of Specialist William Gabrielsen; Ed and Bill had played football together at Frankfort High School. And although Bill had known Ed’s older brother, he says they were not close friends.
Bill continued working for 25 years, writing congressional representatives and U.S. senators and contacting officials at the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and various veterans groups around the country.
Bill received a steady stream of rejections. Some of the reasons offered were:
“The injuries were not combat related,” said Colonel Hoherz of the U.S. Army. “He committed a thoughtless mistake,” and Gabrielsen’s family was pursuing, “a less than honorable course of appeal” by seeking outside assistance, said Phil Coleman, senior librarian of the Vietnam War Electronic Library. Most biting of all, Coleman said, “I do not believe it is [Gabrielsen’s] desire to have his family agonizing over a few inches of granite.”
Despite these setbacks, Bill Hollenbeck pressed on.
Explaining his motivation, Hollenbeck said: “Imagine the long arm of the government comes, grabs your son, and you never see him again. Then you’re told his sacrifice isn’t enough.”
In 2013, Hollenbeck was put in touch with Jan Clay, a program analyst working for the Army. Part of her job was working on cases to add names to the Wall.
“She was a Godsend,” Hollenbeck told me.
Eventually, Gabrielsen’s case was reviewed by the Office of the Surgeon General. In October 2013, Hollenbeck received a letter from Mary Snavely-Dixon of the Department of Defense. She had approved Hollenbeck’s request to add Gabrielsen’s name to the Wall. Writing to Jan Clay, Hollenbeck said:
“I just received the official notification. I have to tell you that I literally sat down and sobbed.”
For 25 years, Hollenbeck had ill feelings toward the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and refused to talk about his own service in the war.
“I now feel as if I have a light heart and truly want to embrace the memorial and all it stands for,” he told me. “As a Vietnam veteran, it’s such a great feeling.”
Moreover, his work helped others—Gabrielsen’s story and others began to filter up through the Defense Department. Based on a discussion between then-Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-Undersecretary David Chu, a Department of Defense Instruction (DODI) on August 14, 2009, was issued clarifying the criteria by which a service member’s name may be added to the Wall. This DODI opened up the opportunity for Gabrielsen’s name to be added to the Wall. Commenting on the change in criteria, Chu explained to me via a phone interview on November 9, 2016:
“This policy clarification was very much a tribute to the American public’s desire to recognize those who served.”
Resolution for a Family
In 2013, Hollenbeck took a trip to visit his best friend, Ed Gabrielsen, brother of the fallen soldier. He had not told his friend of the news. They met at a diner outside of Boulder, Colorado. Hollenbeck slid the Department of the Army letter across the table. Ed put on his reading glasses and read, as the tears dripped down his face and fell on the letter.
On Sunday, May 11, 2014, Ed Gabrielsen, Bill Hollenbeck, and Jan Clay attended the ceremony when Specialist William Gabrielsen’s name was added to the Wall. They all hugged, overcome with emotion. Weeks later, in an e-mail message sent to friends, Ed said:
“Those of you who knew my brother knew his kind, gentle spirit and would want this long overdue recognition for the ultimate sacrifice he made for our country. After all this time I can finally say, ‘Bill’s name is on the Wall’.”
A version of this article first published in the Glen Arbor Sun, a Leelanau County-based semi-sister publication to The Betsie Current.
Featured Photo Caption: Specialist William Gabrielsen, a native of Frankfort, was injured in North Vietnam in the early morning hours of August 12, 1968; having never regained consciousness, he died on March 10, 1970. But it would not be until May 11, 2014, that his name would be added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., after a 25-year crusade by fellow Frankfort native and Vietnam veteran Bill Hollenbeck. Photo courtesy of the Gabrielsen family.