From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Former Marine platoon commander Jack Ruffer can still see the faces of all 11 men he lost in Operation Medina on Oct. 12, 1967. One, Sal Bazulto, was a newlywed who left for Vietnam unaware his wife was pregnant. Another, William Stanton Blessing, gravely wounded at 18, took his last breath as Ruffer held him, rocking. "These aren't just names on that wall," says Ruffer, 70, of those and the 58,270 others on Washington, D.C.'s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "They were real people."

Ruffer is one of about 200 volunteers-many of them veterans-toiling to find a picture for each name etched in the black granite. In the 18 months since memorial founder and president Jan Scruggs launched a nationwide call for photos (buildthecenter.org), more than 23,000 have come in. The plan is to display them in a nearby education center, opening in 2014. For the surviving vets, it's a Herculean labor of love. "You see how much of life they had ahead," says Dr. Linda Schwartz, who was an Air Force nurse in Vietnam. "People need to see these faces as the real cost of war."