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Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- They don't know how long Columbus Watson lay in his unmarked grave.

No one visiting the Oak Ridge part of the Fort Myers Cemetery — the historically black section — could know they were passing the final resting place of a man who died at 20, when his helicopter crashed in Vietnam's Dong Nai River, because Watson's headstone had been stolen years earlier.

Then the local Vietnam Veterans of America learned about him.

For the last few years, the group has made it its business to find and honor veterans from Dunbar who haven't been given their due, said Chapter 594 President Craig Tonjes. "A lot of people from here have never even heard these kids' names before."

The aim goes beyond simply learning names, dates and combat tours, Tonjes said; the group has been working to make area veterans' history personal.

Now, Watson — once a happy-go-lucky kid who loved to play Zorro and wanted to grow up to be a doctor — has a gleaming new stone framed by two small U.S. flags. It was formally unveiled this month at a ceremony honoring him and five other black men who died in Vietnam.

The event was a chance for his sister, Hannah "Pat" Watson, to stand up and tell those gathered under the live oaks about losing her big brother and best friend — and thank them for giving her an actual place to go to remember him.

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The crowd also heard stories about Claude Rice, Christopher Dean, John Rolle and others. That storytelling has been a key part of the veterans' group's mission over the last few years.

In 2008, the nonprofit dedicated a monument to Vietnam vets in a small park off McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers, next to the Midpoint Memorial Bridge. Like the larger version in Washington, the black wall is inscribed with names of fallen soldiers from Lee, Collier, Hendry, Glades and Charlotte counties — 76 so far.

But simply listing them wasn't enough for the volunteers.

"We wanted to know who they were, what their lives were like, tell their stories," said associate member Donna Gerber, of Fort Myers.

So she and others began digging. They scoured libraries, searched ancestry websites and tracked down family members. High school yearbooks were particularly useful, the Ohio-born Gerber said, because they usually included portraits and gave a snapshot of each soldier's interests.

Once they put together a biography, they'd upload it to the online Wall of Faces (vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces) a project of the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. But as Gerber and her team were doing their research, they noticed a group of soldiers about whom information was especially hard to come by.

"I'd heard Fort Myers only had one high school, but when I searched the old yearbooks, I never found their names," she said. "I couldn't figure it out until someone told me, 'Donna, this is the South. Only the white kids went to Fort Myers High.' I come from a farm in Ohio where everything was integrated, so that hadn't even occurred to me — it was so outside my own experience."

Once the group realized that the area's black soldiers hadn't been recognized, they enlisted the help of Dunbar residents, the Dunbar High School Alumni Association and the American Legion Post 192 to find families of the fallen.

As they researched, the mission became personal for Gerber and fellow volunteer and associate member Lorie Augustyn.

"They're all like little brothers to me," Augustyn said. "They were just boys — most of them between 18 and 22, a lot of them killed within six months of getting over there ... I break down a lot and start crying. You just get so close to them."

The more they learned, the more they realized the slights and omissions stretched back for decades.

For example, it had been widely circulated — and reported in The News-Press — that the first soldier from Fort Myers to die in Vietnam was Ernest M. Schultz III, on Feb. 10, 1965, when a bomb tore through his barracks. (The American Legion Post 351 on Palm Beach Boulevard in Fort Myers is named in his honor.)

In fact, Claude Rice, who graduated from Dunbar High School in 1961, according to the school's unofficial historian Jerry Swan Harris, was killed 16 months earlier on Oct. 8, 1963. Because the Navy only listed his birthplace as Georgia, his name never made it onto the Fort Myers memorial where it belongs, Tonjes said.

But the group will correct that sometime in the coming months, when Sanibel artist Luc Century, who engraved the names on the Washington memorial as well, will add Rice's and other since-found soldiers' names to the wall.

"And we learned that they weren't paying correct respect to the black community," said Augustyn. "I heard it over and over. They'd show up at the door, tell them their loved one had been killed on such-and-such a date, then turn around and leave," she says. "And that was it. There was no closure. They knew nothing about what was going on."

They also learned about the vandalism to Watson's grave when member and findagrave.com cemetery researcher Chuck Reed went searching for it and discovered that he couldn't find the tombstone.

"So we got a hold of the family, got the proper paperwork done through the VA and had a new headstone delivered," Augustyn said.

"I was only 14 years old. He was my best friend," said Watson's sister, breaking down in tears. "He was a god to me, and I lost him. And it hurts. In all these years, he was never married, he never had kids, so he didn't leave us anything to hold on to. But I still love my brother, and now thanks to Donna and all the hard work of people looking for us ... he has a headstone," she says. "And I can find him now."

Learn more

• The Fort Myers Vietnam Memorial is at McGregor and Colonial boulevards in Fort Myers.

• Framed photos and biographies of area veterans are also on display at the The Museum of Military Memorabilia inside the Naples Municipal Airport, 500 Terminal Drive, Naples. Call 941-575-0401; online: museum-mm.org

• The Vietnam Veterans of America, Firebase 594's Facebook page is at: facebook.com/pages/Vietnam-Veterans-of-America-Lee-County-Fl-Firebase-594/304209066385216

• American Legion Post 192's Facebook page is at: facebook.com/pages/Robert-H-R-Dabney-American-Legion-Post-192/675412055838216

Still searching

The Lee County Vietnam Veterans of America is still searching for biographical details from veterans from throughout Southwest Florida. Here are some of the people for whom they're seeking information; if you have any, please call 333-6631 or email vva594@yahoo.com

• Wayne Morris Bell

• Robert Elmer Bryant

• Warren Nelson Chapman

• Harold Clarence Cook

• Christopher Michael Daniels

• Gary Leonard Daniels

• Ralph Lee Ford (Clewiston)

• Fredercik C. Forte, Jr.

• Leo Fred Johnson (Clewiston)

• Frederick Richard Levins

• Ronald Francis Liscum

• J.C. Theodore Miller

• Raymond Earl Ott

• Charles Reuben Outlaw

• Charles Edward Owens

• James Alvin Pace (Clewiston)

• Thomas Victor Pilson

• David Stuart Taylor, Jr.

• Allan James Williams (Clewiston)

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