For years, Novato resident and Vietnam War veteran Jim Reilly had no interest in visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
Seeing the names of those he had known inscribed on the granite wall in Washington D.C. would have been too difficult, he said.
When Reilly did at last visit it in 1999, he was shocked. The name of his younger brother was missing. The 20-year-old died, along with 73 others, aboard the USS Frank E. Evans in an accidental collision in the South China Sea in 1969.
As he would learn, the omission of Lawrence Reilly Jr.'s name, and those of the other fallen men — dubbed "The Lost 74" — was no accident. Now 47 years since his brother's death, Reilly, 70, is not done fighting. He is involved in a campaign to have the names of those killed aboard the USS Evans added to the wall.
"Ultimately, of course we'd like the 74 names added to the wall," Reilly said. "Space is going to be a problem so it may be necessary to make some kind of accommodation. Whatever accommodation needs to be made, it should be made."
In the early hours of June 3, 1969, the USS Evans, a Navy destroyer carrying 272 men, was ripped in two during Operation Sea Spirit, a training exercise involving more than 40 ships of allied countries.
After one flawed move by the USS Evans 225 miles off the coast of Vietnam, the HMAS Melbourne, an Australian carrier, tore into the ship, killing 74 men. The brothers' father, Lawrence Reilly Sr., was also aboard the ship as a U.S. Navy master chief, but survived.
Those who died were not included among the more than 58,000 names on the memorial wall, completed in 1982, because the incident did not occur within the war's combat zone. The ship was 125 miles outside of the designated war zone when it went down, according to Louise Esola, who wrote about the incident in "American Boys: The True Story of the Lost 74 of the Vietnam War."
Secretaries of defense have before publicly expressed support for the men's names to be added to the wall. Former defense secretary Chuck Hagel is reported to have said that just because the ship sunk outside the designated war zone "shouldn't preclude them from having their sacrifice memorialized on that wall." But still the names have not been added.
Reilly said that although the men were not inside the war zone at the time of their deaths, they were deeply involved in the war effort and should qualify for the wall. One month before the collision, the ship and its crew were part of a major offensive and provided gunfire support to U.S. troops off Vietnam.
"We all considered (the Evans collision) a Vietnam-connected incident," he said. "The ship had left Long Beach to go to Vietnam and never came back."
Before the ship's sinking, those who served aboard the vessel were awarded a Vietnam Service Medal for their contributions to the war effort, he said.
Pitch to Obama
After learning about the USS Frank E. Evans Association, dedicated to the men who served on the ship, Reilly began working with its members to push for the inclusion of names.
In 2012 he made an attempt of his own, putting together an extensive package that included images of his lanky younger brother in his U.S. Navy uniform wearing thick-rimmed glasses. A sharp dresser who enjoyed donning suits and ties, his brother had a hard time fitting in during high school after the family moved from New York to Southern California. But once he went aboard the USS Evans along with his father, he felt at home, his brother recalled.
The package, addressed to President Barack Obama, included a letter asking the president to use his executive authority to add the names to the wall. Months later, he received a card from the White House that read, "thanks for your gift."
Steve Kraus, vice president of the USS Frank E. Evans Association and a signalman aboard the ship during the collision, said family members of those killed have been fighting to get the names on the wall since the wall was first erected. After learning the Department of Defense calls the shots, members began pushing for the department to re-examine the criteria for inclusion. The group has been party to House and Senate bills requesting the inclusion, but none has passed.
"A number of relatives have lost parents and have lived 45-plus years with an open-ended case for why theirs didn't get recognition but everyone else did," Kraus said.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, on Thursday announced his office sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter asking for the names of the 74 men, including some from his state, to be added to the wall.
"By withholding their names from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, we are denying the deceased crewmembers of the USS Frank E. Evans the proper recognition for their brave and noble service," Schumer's letter reads.
Jim Reilly said the senator's voice is perhaps the most influential yet to publicly stand in support. He is hopeful the message will motivate Department of Defense officials to at last agree to add the names.
He wishes his now 91-year-old father will one day be able to see his late son's name inscribed on the wall.
"We've been losing that generation person after person," he said. "My mom died three years ago. Other parents have died in past years and have missed the opportunity to see their sons' names on the wall. ... The sooner the better. The previous generation won't be around much longer."