Walt Wentz plans to return but ponders end to 11-year vigil

by: NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO - Before he had heart surgery early this month, Forest Grove resident Walt Wentz had missed only three Thursday evenings in 11 years of standing vigil on Pacific Avenue with his Bring Our Troops Home sign.Three out of 520.

Until this month, that’s how many Thursdays since July 2003 that Walt Wentz had not stood with his “Bring Our Troops Home” sign on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Birch Street in Forest Grove.

“One time there was a windstorm so violent I just couldn’t hold the sign,” said Wentz, whose weathered, hat-shaded face is as familiar to Thursday afternoon commuters as the kilt worn by his vigil comrade Robert Lamb. Two other times he was in San Diego visiting his son.

That dedication — and nearly flawless attendance record — ran headlong into a heart condition three weeks ago, when Wentz, 72, began to feel chest and arm and jaw pain on his left side and ended up having quadruple bypass surgery at 7:30 a.m. July 4.

In Springfield at the time, Wentz said he won’t be able to return to Forest Grove until August, by which time he’ll have missed at least six of the weekly “vigils” he started 11 years ago.

It wasn’t the war in Afghanistan that prompted Wentz, then associate editor of Ruralite Magazine, to start the vigil, which might end this year.

“At the beginning, I felt Afghanistan would have and could have been won. But we went off on a wild goose chase,” he said, referring to the invasion of Iraq.Elaine Bohlmeyer and Robert Lamb kept the vigil going after Wentz went to the hospital July 3. Louise Rickard, who was sidelined briefly by eye surgery, rejoined them last Thursday.

In March 2003, when the death toll of American soldiers in Iraq passed 1,000, Wentz began walking through Rogers Park with a lantern for an hour and a half every Thursday night.

His solitary vigil drew attention and concern — but for Wentz, not the troops. “People would ask me what I was doing wandering around in the cold with a candle in the dark.”

So he moved his vigil to Pacific Avenue, outside the library — and added a sign: “Bring Our Troops Home.”

At first he drew mostly hostile responses, including angry honks and shouts and gestures. “People were still buying into the (now discredited) line that Iraq was connected to 9/11,” he said.

Eventually, the mood began to change and people asked to join him.

Overall, the vigil has drawn as many as a dozen regulars, although rarely more than six at a time. Occasionally, “somebody would wander by and ask if we had a spare sign.” And yes, there was usually an extra sign in someone’s car.

Recently, the current group of regulars has thinned. Even before Wentz’s heart trouble, one member had surgery. Another moved. Another is avoiding the heat on doctor’s orders.

Last week, Lamb and Elaine Bohlmeyer held down the fort by themselves. But Wentz and the two others still in town plan to return.

The vigil’s goal has been simply to push for bringing American troops home. With all the troops removed from Iraq in 2011 and most of those in Afghanistan scheduled to return home at the end of this year, Wentz’s concerns might be answered.

But the Afghanistan pullout would still leave nearly 10,000 troops behind, with the full, final pullout occurring in 2016.

In addition, Wentz is troubled by the veterans who come home and end up homeless or suicidal due to lack of counseling.

He’ll reassess the situation in January, hoping for enough improvement that he’ll finally be able to set down the sign he first raised 11 years ago.

“Same old sign,” Wentz said. “It’s getting extremely battered.”

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