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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

From the archives: Vietnam Memorial keeps memories alive

Thursday, April 30, 2015 - 12:01 am

This story was originally published May 22, 1998.

Editor's Note: A visit by News-Sentinel editorial page editor Leo Morris to the Veterans National Memorial Shrine on O'Day Road, which will be dedicated during watch fire memorial activities on Saturday, triggered his own graphic memories of Vietnam.

It is a sunny, cloudless Monday at Veterans National Memorial Shrine on O'Day Road. Rex and Harold are showing their visitor the 450 red bricks finally put in place on the path to the new Vietnam memorial, three slabs of American black marble atop pieces of Georgia granite. Each brick will be "sold'' for $50, enabling the buyer to engrave the remembrance of a veteran by name, branch and date of service. The money's not the main thing - preserving the memory is.

Rex has a Vietnam memory of his own to share. But first he wants to help Harold make the visitor understand how this remarkable shrine came to be and what it means to local veterans that it will finally be dedicated during watch fire memorial activities this Saturday:

"So many people and businesses donated money that it would be unfair to single one out,'' Rex says. "And everyone who's worked on this together was a volunteer. It's brought all the veterans together - from World War I to Desert Storm.

"When I got back from Vietnam, I endured more hostilities than when I was in-country, but that was then. People have just been remarkable.''

The Vietnam Memorial Committee was formed in March of 1987 as a nonprofit corporation to raise money for a memorial. But the fund-raising efforts stalled, and it looked like nothing would happen.

"There was a woman from Auburn,'' Harold says, "a Vietnam vet, who belonged to Northeast Indiana Veterans. She came here and saw what we'd started and was just appalled that not much had been done. She wanted to know why, so our Northeast group kind of took the project on.''

And got it done. Aren't there one or two people who should be singled out?

"Oh, no,'' Rex says, "but if you want to mention names, write about Ted Schaefer or Ken Draper, they really stuck with the project. Don't use my name, though.''

That's the kind of project it's been, Harold says, people in it not for the credit but just to get it done.

Rex takes the visitor all the way around the monument, making sure to save the most important part until last.

"In honor and remembrance of all who served in Vietnam'' is carved onto one slab of marble. There are etchings of helicopters and a medical unit, a riverboat.

Then they walk around to the second slab: "The defense of freedom and culture is a noble cause.'' This part of the monument also has something carved in Vietnamese.

"As far as I know,'' Rex says, "this is the only Vietnam memorial that honors not just the veterans but also the Vietnamese people who fought with us. The Vietnamese community in Fort Wayne came up with the words for us.''

Then, the last side, the one Rex wants the visitor to especially notice. It has a carving of an M-16 rifle stabbed into the ground by its bayonet, a helmet perched on top and a pair of combat boots resting nearby. "In memory of those killed, missing and imprisoned,'' the words say. "You are not forgotten.''

"And while you're looking at this,'' Rex tells the visitor, "glance over your left shoulder.''

There, out in the woods, is a replica of a guard tower from a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, looking all the more menacing for its plain, wooden simplicity.

"They go together, don't they?'' he asks. "They tell the whole story.''

Rex seems to be gazing off into the distance, and there is a tightness in his voice.

"I got in-country in August (of '66), just in time for Operation Starlight, which was the first full offensive with American troops. All of us (he was in maintenance) were assigned to help the medical unit. I remember helping this wounded staff sergeant, gave him a cigarette.

"I asked about him later, and they said he just had too much shrapnel in him to make it. Can you imagine? Someone you'd helped. And I didn't even know his name.''

Rex's voice trails off, and he turns to the visitor: ``You getting a little misty-eyed?''

"Yes,'' the visitor acknowledges. And not just because of Rex or the story of the unknown sergeant. Also because the visit to the marble-and-granite monument, nestled in the dappled shade of oak and elm trees on a sunny day in Fort Wayne, has triggered the visitor's own memories of Vietnam.

I remember seeing a shriveled old man, sitting against a building in an alley of An Khe, Vietnam, smoking a pipe. The man had no arms. He smoked the pipe by holding it between the toes of one foot.

What was so remarkable about that sight, what has etched it into my memory permanently, is how unremarkable it looked, how normal, how accepting the man seemed of his circumstances.

I don't try to remember the old man. I don't have to. He has visited me from time to time in my dreams. Not often - but just enough.

As have other memories of my days in-country.

I have dreamed about the two men I saw running across an open field, and the helicopter that was strafing them.  "Did they get them?'' we asked ourselves for days. Of course they did.

I have dreamed about the too-wise gaze of the young prostitute who asked me to go home with her. ``What about your parents?'' I asked. Oh, they OK, they stay in other room. ``How old are you?'' 13. The Vietnamese, I knew, counted the time in the womb when calculating age. She was 12.

I have dreamed about the abject terror I felt when there was an explosion on the trail behind me, and the lieutenant yelled for everybody to get off the road and into the ditch. Our master sergeant, it turned out, had wounded two or three of his men by tripping and discharging his M-79 grenade launcher, which the dummy was carrying cocked.

And I have dreamed about the stultifying heat, the torrential monsoons, the constant prick of mosquito bites, the overpowering, ever-present odor of the fish sauce nuoc mam. And about the white-sand beaches of Cam Rahn Bay, the most beautiful I have ever seen.

The worst memories, though, the ones that turn dreams into nightmares - the kind you will speak of only to a handful of people - aren't even from Vietnam.

During the now-infamous Tet offensive, I was in a military hospital at Camp Zama, Japan, (sick, not wounded). So, though I missed seeing the carnage firsthand, I certainly experienced the aftermath.

Day after day, the soldiers poured in, all the men - boys like me, really - too severely wounded to be taken care of in Vietnam and needing attention too quickly to await transportation to the States. Soldiers with missing arms and missing legs, soldiers with half their midsections blown away, soldiers with scorched faces and bandaged heads. Battered and broken and bleeding, they were barely 20 and would never be the same again.

And they didn't seem to mind! With some exceptions, they did not bemoan their fate or curse their country. They were like that armless old man, accepting of their fate, proud to have served their country, almost cheerful.

The dreams of those boys are the ones that turn into sheet-soaking, don't-go-back-to-sleep nightmares. The dreams have always started with me looking at them, but then one of them becomes whole, and I place him back on the operating-room gurney.

It's called survivor's guilt.

I've often thought of those soldiers. Did they stay cheerful when they returned home and saw the protest marches full of cocky college students carrying ``baby killer'' signs? Were they still proud of their sacrifice when this nation pulled out of Vietnam, and they realized it was all for nothing? Did they sink into despair, unable to ever get beyond that war? Or did they find healing, a little peace?

It's an individual journey, the quest for healing. I've found mine, mostly. Dreams are just dreams. Some people can't get over them, some can. I did.

But it occurred to me this week, as I stood in front of Fort Wayne's new Vietnam memorial, a visitor with a guide named Rex, that people can help each other along with the journey.

That's what Rex and hundreds of other veterans and non-veterans have been doing with that remarkable Veterans National Memorial Shrine on O'Day Road.

Yes, they have been building monuments to the soldiers of Allen County who fought in all this country's wars. Yes, they've been maintaining a museum of war memorabilia so people never forget. Yes, they're providing hiking trails and places for primitive camping and conducting Memorial Day services.

But the days are gone when they were young and duty called, and they answered because their country said it needed them. Now they are older, and they can replay the memories over and over.

Or they can answer when duty calls again, not because they have to but because they want to, for each other.

Rex shakes off his own memory and leads the visitor from the Vietnam memorial and calls attention to all of the Veterans National Memorial Shrine with a sweep of his hand.

"Isn't this a remarkable place?''

The shrine is 40 acres. It began 40 years ago as the dream of World War I veteran Eric A. Scott. He started a museum on the land while he still lived there, an effort he dedicated to the rank-and-file soldier. Scott died in 1981, his wife, Cleo, in 1987. They left the property to veterans.

And the veterans - from World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam - have made the place theirs, adding exhibits to the museum, monuments to the soldiers of all wars. Next, a chapel is planned.

"Just look at the area around here,'' Rex says. "The land over that way is already subdivided, has sewer and water lines. And an industry wants a lot of acres over there. In the next 10 years, this little park could be a place of peace and quiet for everybody around here. That's fitting.''

And healing.