Nearly 49 years after surviving a maritime collision that claimed the lives of 74 fellow sailors, Steve Kraus remains locked in a bitter battle with the Pentagon over how those Vietnam-era casualties should be honored — and he finally may be on the verge of a major breakthrough thanks to renewed efforts on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Kraus, 72, president of the USS Frank E. Evans Association, has for the past 15 years helped lead the push urging the Defense Department to add the names of the 74 sailors — each of whom had been deployed to Vietnam and taken part in military action there — to Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The ship sank on June 3, 1969, after a collision with an Australian vessel during friendly training exercises in the South China Sea. The Pentagon has refused to include the Evans crew on the memorial wall because they perished outside the strictly defined war zone.
“We’ve always said we didn’t go there for a cruise, or to look at the islands,” Mr. Kraus told The Washington Times in response to the Defense Department’s position. “We went there and fired armament, we fought in a war. That is a real poor excuse to exclude people who died for their country. It’s not fair.”
The fight over the 74 names has pitted sailors and their families against the Pentagon, and is an example of a much broader fight about what it means to be killed in action. It’s also exposed deep divisions within the Defense Department, as top Navy officials have publicly come out in favor of including the names only to be overruled by their superiors.
The Pentagon said over the weekend that its position on the matter has not changed.
What has changed is the approach of Capitol Hill lawmakers, who have picked up the fight and now seem better positioned than ever to force the Pentagon to change course.
An amendment co-sponsored by Rep. Adam Schiff, California Democrat, and Rep. Kevin Cramer, North Dakota Republican, that cleared the House last week as part of the broader National Defense Authorization Act would require the 74 names to be added to the memorial.
“Their sacrifice and that of their families is worthy of not only our mention but of the high honor of being memorialized forever on that wall,” Mr. Cramer said on the House floor last week.
Mr. Schiff said the fallen sailors are due the same recognition as others who died during the Vietnam War.
“The lost 74 of the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans died serving our country during the Vietnam War, and their sacrifice should be recognized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial alongside other fallen service members,” he said.
Mr. Kraus and supportive lawmakers contend that the sailors are deserving of a spot on the memorial because they were deployed on official duty, had served in the war zone before the fatal exercises in the South China Sea, and were slated to return to the theater shortly after the drills.
While the Pentagon has held fast to the position that the sailors shouldn’t included on the wall because of where they perished, there’s been division within the Defense Department on the issue. In 2015, Navy officials said then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus agreed that the names should be added to the wall.
The statement came in response to a push from Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and now the chamber’s minority leader. At the time, Mr. Schumer called the Navy’s position a “massive boost” to the cause.
But it appears Mr. Mabus and others in the Navy were overruled.
The Evans sailors “do not meet the established criteria for the inscription of their names on the wall,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Courtney Hillson, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said last year. “The deputy secretary of defense extensively reviewed information and records to make an informed decision.”
Instead, Defense Department officials have offered to honor the 74 sailors with a plaque inside an education center near the memorial, though Mr. Kraus and other survivors say that’s simply not enough.
Another frustration, he said, is that Pentagon officials have over the years given other explanations.
“We’ve heard every excuse in the book, clear down to there’s not space on the wall,” Mr. Kraus said, though Defense Department officials publicly have maintained the only barrier is where the tragedy took place.
Amid the renewed fight, another survivor of the incident died last week. Lawrence Reilly Sr., who served as a Navy master chief, died Wednesday in Syracuse, New York, after complications from pneumonia, his family said.
Before his death, he had been an outspoken advocate of adding the 74 names to the Vietnam Memorial.
“I’m just very sad he didn’t get see the day when they are on the wall,” Reilly’s daughter, Luanne Oda, told The Associated Press. “But we’re going to keep fighting for it. They deserve it.”
Mr. Schumer cited Reilly’s death during brief remarks on the Senate floor last week, saying “In his honor, we will continue to pressure the Pentagon to recognize the Frank E. Evans on the Vietnam Memorial.”