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Maui woman on the home stretch in quest for Vietnam veteran photos

Janna Hoehn down to final six photos for memorial wall after 11 years of searching

Janna Hoehn poses with photos she has collected of Vietnam Veterans who were killed in action, including fallen Maui County soldiers on the panels behind her. This photo was taken Sunday morning in her Launiupoko home. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

It was just about 11 years ago to this date that Janna Hoehn combed through yearbooks at the old Maui High School campus, focused on finding photos of some of the 42 Maui Vietnam War veterans killed in the conflict.

In six months she succeeded.

But that wasn’t enough for the Launiupoko resident, who went on to post more than 8,000 photos — some 5,000 she found on her own — to “The Wall of Faces” online memorial, where the goal is to feature a photo of the approximately 58,300 names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Hoehn said on Thursday that she has actually stopped counting the photos that she and her volunteer friends have found through yearbooks, obituaries, internet searches, visiting and writing to government organizations, contacting families and even knocking on people’s doors.

Hoehn, a freelance floral designer, said she would have never imagined 11 years ago that she would still be working on the project and uncovering thousands of photos from across the country.

A montage of photos that were sent to Hoehn take pride of place in her workroom Sunday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

She has also gathered awards locally and nationally for her efforts along the way.

In 2011, Hoehn was asked by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to handle gathering photos from Maui, so she did.

“I felt I would be so thrilled when I got it done and I was. I enjoyed meeting the families and everything, I didn’t want it to end,” she said looking back.

Volunteers in other states also took on the same monumental task, with some finding thousands of photos.

And through efforts by volunteers along with veterans associations across the nation and others, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Wall of Faces is just shy of six photos.

Hoehn holds Military Payment Certificates that were given to her by a fallen soldier’s appreciative family. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“Can you really believe we are finally down to needing six photos?” Hoehn asked.

Three veterans are from New York — Roger Brown (June 13, 1949 to April 9, 1969), Steven Brian Calhoun (Feb. 12, 1947 to May 18, 1969) and Hector David Oyola (April 13, 1949 to Aug. 14, 1970); two veterans are from Puerto Rico — Juan Ortiz-Rivera (June 24,1942 to Dec. 28, 1967) and Jaime Rodriguez-Rivera (Aug. 27, 1948 to April 27, 1970); and one veteran is from Michigan — Saul Zayas (March 24, 1949 to Feb. 3, 1968).

Hoehn said finding photos from New York has been tough as the state’s libraries do not carry high school yearbooks and most newspapers there, especially in the city, have turned down her requests for stories to be done about the effort.

Newspapers and other publications are Hoehn’s go-to tactic for getting widespread attention in various communities where she is searching for photos.

“It has been 11 years since (The Maui News) did my first story,” she said. “You kept on doing a little story, showing my progress and who I still needed. There is no way I would have finished Maui if it hadn’t been for you guys.”

Other small hometown papers have also contributed to her success.

Hoehn has also done podcasts, which have also brought in valuable volunteers and photos.

Finding photos from Puerto Rico has also been challenging, as Hurricane Maria in 2017 caused widespread damage, destroying homes, buildings and personal items, all of which could have contained those precious photos.

Hoehn said that one volunteer in Puerto Rico is trying to help, but the woman is afraid to venture into a town that is unsafe to explore.

Looking back, all of Hoehn’s efforts stemmed from a visit to the nation’s capital years ago when she stopped at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. She did not know anyone who died in the war but randomly chose a name, made a rubbing from the wall and brought it home as a memento. Hoping to find a photograph to add to her scrapbook, she did some research and found nothing.

Tapping her cousin with genealogy skills, they were able to find a photograph of the veteran. After learning about the national project to collect photographs of fallen Vietnam service members, she sent her photo to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The organization thanked her and asked her to help with the effort on Maui.

Once done on Maui, she then went on to search for photos in her home state of California and also picked up the task to find all the photos for Hawaii.

She then extended her search from the West Coast to the East Coast, picking up around 12 research volunteers from across the country who have stuck with her for at least five years. Along the way were many veterans, including Vietnam veterans, who helped.

More than a decade later, Hoehn’s feelings for the veterans have not faded, as she still says her motivation for her volunteer effort is to honor those who fought in Vietnam who were treated badly and forgotten in the midst of a divisive and unpopular war.

She remembers she was in high school in Hemet, Calif. when the war was going on and she saw the bad treatment the veterans suffered. She said “it disturbed me greatly” and “I was only 18 years old.”

Hoehn also had a cousin who fought in the war, came back and “was never the same person again.”

He died when he was 63 years old from exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical used by the military in the war.

Hoehn wrote to this cousin once a week while he was away at war, and about every month she would get a letter in a red, white and blue air mail envelope.

Her cousin never really spoke about the war but was more concerned about Hoehn. This, too, left an impression on her.

HARD WORK AND

A LITTLE LUCK

Over the years, the dates and names of the thousands of photos of veterans Hoehn has encountered through her experience may be fuzzy, but she does have some more notable recollections of her journey, some of which were serendipitous.

She remembers once visiting a Texas home with another volunteer about two weeks after a story about her efforts ran in the Dallas Morning News.

Hoehn recalled she was excited seeing cars outside the home, hoping it was the veteran’s surviving family. She approached a windowless door, and the man inside opened it, no questions asked, saying, “Well, hi, come on in.”

Puzzled, Hoehn asked the man, “Do you want to know who I am?”

“I know who you are,” the man said, referring to the newspaper story.

He said his sister was supposed to contact Hoehn with his brother’s photo but had forgotten.

“He invited us in and … there was a whole corner in their living room dedicated to their brother. It had his uniform, his hat, his flag, tons of pictures. And all I did was just took pictures with my cellphone of all the pictures.”

The man’s mother was still alive but in a nursing home. But the son said his mother was so “ecstatic about this project.” He also offered Hoehn and her family a place to stay if they were in Texas again.

“I’ve met these kinds of people all over the United States, just knocking on a door,” she said.

Another experience Hoehn will not forget is how she found four remaining photos of fallen veterans in Santa Cruz, Calif.

A historian wrote a book about the veterans in the area and had found 32 of 36 photos. But the last four were elusive for years. She contacted the historian, who was skeptical she could find the last four.

“Good luck, honey,” the historian told her.

A local paper ran a story of Hoehn’s efforts in Santa Cruz and about two weeks later she was contacted by a man who lived in Illinois or Indiana. The man provided one of the photos they were looking for.

“My heart stopped, it was one of the four,” she said.

Hoehn said the man told her he is a truck driver and had to take a load to Santa Cruz. He ate at a diner and picked up the newspaper with her story.

“I’m going to myself, ‘What are the chances that man would be in Santa Cruz the day my story came out?’ ” Hoehn asked.

She later found the three remaining photos and sent them all to the historian.

“That is just one of my favorite stories and I got lots of them like that,” she said.

For more information or to help her reach the finish line, contact Hoehn at NeverForgotten2014@gmail.com.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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