A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

June 2001/July 2001

The Tar Heel State Honors Its Vietnam Veterans

By Marc Leepson

As you drive southwest on I-85 out of Greensboro--the site of VVA's Tenth National Convention--you may notice that the state of North Carolina has named a 25-mile stretch of that interstate the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway. As you head into Davidson County, about twenty minutes from Greensboro, a great expanse of some 58,000 loblolly pines rises along the highway--each tree signifying an American service member who died in the Vietnam War.

The state of North Carolina sent some 216,000 men and women to serve in the Vietnam War. More than 4,200 were wounded in action and 1,624 North Carolinians gave their lives in Vietnam. Many cities and counties throughout the Tar Heel State honor those who served in the war with plaques, monuments, and memorials. Scores of memorials honor veterans of several wars, including the Vietnam War. Many local memorials honor Vietnam veterans--those who survived the war and those who didnít.

The list of local Vietnam veterans memorials includes the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Fayettevilleís Lafayette Cemetery, the Vietnam Memorial at Morgantonís New Courthouse, the Living Memorial in Durham, the Memorial at the Courthouse in Louisburg, the War Memorial to Vietnam Veterans in Dallas, the Vietnam Memorial in Linebarger City Park in Gastonia, the Vietnam Memorial at Governmental Plaza in Greensboro, the Vietnam Memorial of Mecklenburg County in Charlotte, the Vietnam War Memorial at City Lake in Rocky Mount, the Memorial to Gen. Roy S. Geiger and L/Cpl Julius C. Foster (USMC) at Memorial Circle at Camp Geiger, the War Memorial Honoring Vietnam War KIAs at the Pitt County Courthouse in Greenville, the Mini Park and Plaque honoring Vietnam Veterans in Mazodan, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in China Grove, the Vietnam Monument at the County Courthouse in Clinton, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the County Library in Scotland, and the Vietnam Memorial at the Union County Courthouse in Monroe.

The official state memorial is the North Carolina Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a striking, life-sized bronze sculpture called "After the Firefight." It was dedicated on Union Square across from the old State Capitol Building in Raleigh during the North Carolina Vietnam Veterans Homecoming Salute on May 23, 1987.

Abbe Godwin of Colfax, North Carolina, designed the state memorial in Raleigh, which was funded completely with privately raised funds. "After the Firefight" is dedicated to the men and women of the state who served in the nation's longest and most controversial overseas war. Godwin's sculpture depicts two men carrying a wounded comrade to a nearby medevac landing zone. The clothing and equipment of the soldiers on this detailed, heroic statue were sculpted from artifacts loaned to the artist by Vietnam veterans.

The Tar Heel State also honors North Carolinians who served in Vietnam with the aforementioned special section of I-85 and with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park, which is located on I-85's southbound state-run rest area between Thomasville and Lexington. This one-of-a-kind, multi-faceted memorial, the brainchild of the Winston-Salem Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, sits on a 1.5-acre plot of land donated by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. It was dedicated on May 27, 1991.

At the Memorial Park's center is a 230-foot circular basin scooped out of the earth. A double row of Carolina river birch lines a brick walkway that encircles the basin. Each of these native trees represents one of North Carolina's 100 counties. Inside is a wide expanse of grass. The centerpiece of the memorial park, which was designed by Charlotte architect Robert Gunn, is a 100-foot-long, eight-foot-high brick wall. Each brick is engraved with the name of a North Carolinian killed or missing in the Vietnam War.

The memorial was built partially with funds appropriated by the North Carolina General Assembly, along with significant private contributions. The Army Corps of Engineers pitched in by doing the site's earthwork and grading. The Brick Institute of North Carolina donated the bricks for the memorial's wall and along its walkways. Volunteers from the North Carolina Mason Contractors Association laid the bricks.

Another unique Tar Heel Vietnam Veterans Memorial is in Fort Bragg, the home of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which served with distinction in World War I and was the first American airborne division in World War II. Since 1946, elements of the 82nd have served in hot spots around the world, including the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Honduras, Panama, the Persian Gulf, and Haiti.

The 82nd's 3rd Division served in Vietnam for 22 months beginning in February 1968 as part of the American response to the Tet Offensive. Eighty-second troopers were stationed in and around Hue in II Corps and later around Saigon in III Corps. During that time, more than two hundred 82nd Airborne troopers were killed and more than a thousand wounded in action.

A memorial to honor the 82nd's Vietnam War veterans was built in December 1969 when the unit brought its colors back to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville. The memorial consists of an M-16 rifle, paratrooper boots and a helmet placed on top of the rifle butt. It is mounted in a granite pedestal sitting in front of the 82nd Airborne's War Memorial Museum on the corner of Fort Bragg's Ardennes and Gela Streets.

Three sides of the spherical pedestal are engraved with the names of the 82nd troopers who died in the war. The front has the inscription: "Nothing is Dearer Than Life, But Nothing Is More Precious Than To Live in Freedom." The memorial was restored and rededicated in 1995 by the Golden Brigade Chapter of the 82nd Airborne Division Association.

Durhamís Memorial: down but Not Out

By Jim Belshaw

Someone went to a lot of trouble to destroy the Vietnam Veterans Living Memorial in Durham, N.C. Someone stole a piece of heavy equipment, drove it to the memorial, knocked down5,000 pounds of granite, shattered the names of the Vietnam War dead and ripped a hole in the fabric of the Durham community, leaving behind a wake of anger, disgust, tears, heartbreak, and a resolve not likely anticipated by the actís perpetrator.

Built as a testament to Durham County's men lost in the Vietnam War and to its returning veterans, now an integral part of the community, the memorial stood for more than nine years in a wooded area near the Edison-Johnson Recreational Center. It was a quiet place, a place for reflection and remembrance, where families came to leave keepsakes for brothers and sons lost in battle, a sanctuary where parents came to have silent conversations with lost sons.

Eleven years ago, a handful of Vietnam veterans thought they could build a memorial by themselves. They didn't want to wait for governmental approval that might not ever come. They engaged others, sought their ideas, and pressed ahead, never dreaming that despite the difficulties they encountered, they could begin building in a year's time.

The Durham Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1992. It was destroyed in 2001. It began in 1990 with another war.

"Twelve Vietnam veterans went out to support the troops in the Gulf War," memorial committee member Brenda Watson said. They worked with Gulf War families for the next year. Some were VVA members; others were just citizens who wanted to lend a hand. The VVA members belonged to Durhamís Chapter 530 and from them eventually came an idea: a monument to Durham Countyís men and women who had served in Vietnam.

They talked among themselves about what the memorial should be and what it should say. They wanted it to be a refuge, a place of tranquillity befitting the solemnity of its purpose. They wanted it to honor both the dead and the living. They went to the Durham City Council and asked for land on which to build it. No one had done this before. They didn't know what to expect. "They gave us the land and a standing ovation," Watson said.

They spent a year raising money. It didnít come easy. They raised a few thousand dollars, but werenít coming close to what they needed, approximately $40,000. It was going to be more expensive than they thought and harder to come by the money. Watson used her own home as collateral for a bank note to help finance the effort. The memorial would be in place for five years before the debt was retired.

Jerond Belton and Frank Bratsch sat down at Belton's kitchen table and designed it. "I wanted it to make a bold statement to the people," Belton said.

In August 1992, the memorial was dedicated. It stood in a wooded area between the Edison-Johnson Recreation Center and the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science. Black granite faced east to signify the direction in which the Durham men and women were sent to fight a war. The beginning and ending dates of the Vietnam War--1959-1975--remind the viewer of the war's fearful longevity.

A semicircle of five granite benches represent the five branches of the armed services. On the west side, there were plaques with the names of the 38 men from Durham County who died in Vietnam and one listed as Missing In Action. Vietnam veterans donated $25 apiece to have their names engraved on bricks set in a circle around the monument.

As the years went by, the memorial became part of the Durham landscape, a permanent addition to its sense of place. At the time of its inception and construction, it was one of only a few in North Carolina. Others would come later, but in Durham, that core of people in Chapter 530 hadn't waited for someone else to tell them they could build a memorial. They wanted to build it themselves and they did.

"I was out there a lot doing landscaping and that sort of thing, some weeks every day, and I was amazed at the number of people who came out and just looked at it," Howard Du Bose said. "A lot of people came to see it. It was very important to people who knew about it, and we tried very hard to make sure a lot of people knew about it"

Former Marine David Watson (Brenda's husband) remembers veteransí family members lingering at the memorial, leaving remembrances as many do at The Wall in Washington. "Theyíd leave a flower, a note, a flag, small mementos," he said. "A lot of them will go out and sit and it does them a world of good."

At 7:00 a.m., Jan. 30, 2001, a jogger came down a pathway near the memorial. A front-end loader belonging to a roofing company from a nearby job site sat atop a pile of granite rubble. The monument lay in ruin. The slab of black rock bearing the names of Durhamís Vietnam War dead had been shattered. One of the five marble benches around the memorial had been knocked over. The driver of the front-end loader had to go over the bench to reach the memorial.

Only the granite base was salvageable. No arrests have been made. The anger lingers. "There was a lot of disgust that somebody would do something like that," David Watson said. "For the families of the people who were killed and whose names were on the back, it really tore them up. Some of them said it was as if their brothers and sons had died all over again. It was really devastating to them."

Brenda Watson remembers one parent in particular. "The second day, one of the dads of a son who had died in Vietnam came out," she said. "He was standing there, where we had the names of the dead in the back of the memorial. Iíll never forget the look in his face. The memorial wasnít just a piece of stone. It was a place families went to. Iíll never forget looking at that dadís face. It was like he had been destroyed. It was beyond belief."

Two sisters of an Air Force pilot killed in the war wrote letters upon learning of the memorial's destruction: "That was the one place I could go to feel close to my brother," one said. "I went on his birthday and on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. It was with a heavy heart that I read about the destruction of this hallowed spot. Several times I have driven by there since the vandalism and been unable to look at that place."

"I don't know whether to scream, get violent, or get sick," her sister wrote. "For many of the surviving families and friends, the war will never be over, and the hurt will never go away. This repulsive act has made us relive our tragedies. My only brother, Capt. Thomas B. Orr, USAF, killed in action 1-7-69, was on that memorial. Itís as if he has been killed over again. Thank you for speaking out for our brothers who can no longer speak for themselves."

In the first few days after the destruction of the memorial, insult was added to the community's injury. The city of Durham had helped the memorial's founders by providing three flagpoles. The memorial had gone eight years without them and the new ones not only provided a means by which to fly the flags--the U.S. flag, state flag and POW-MIA flag--but it also provided some security to protect them.

The locking flagpoles made it difficult for a vandal to cause problems. Nonetheless, a determined vandal found a way. "After the memorial was trashed, somebody actually came and cut down and stole the American flag," Howard Du Bose said. "He had to climb up the pole and cut the rope at the top to get the flag. When I saw it, it was like, 'Damn.í "

Brenda Watson remembers staring at the wreckage, wondering what to do next. "We were sitting there, not knowing what to do, and they said, 'We'll help you.í "

"They" were businessmen Tim Holloway of Tovar Trucking and Harlan Laws of the Harlan Laws Corporation. "They came out with their cranes and they brought their trucks in and cleaned it up so it didnít look like a place of destruction," Brenda said. Harlan Laws provided a temporary memorial until a new one could be completed. It was dedicated on Memorial Day.

"They picked up the pieces of the memorial and stored them in warehouses," Brenda said. "They donated all of the equipment to put the memorial back so in the cost of reconstructing it we donít have to pay for all the cranes and trucking."

Help poured in. The repair work was estimated at $26,000, half of which has been raised. Memorial Treasurer Du Bose said the city of Durham has promised to cover whatever is needed until donations come in to complete reconstruction.

The Durham VA Hospital staff donated $1,000; a physicianís assistant group at Duke University Hospital gave $500. The repair work is being done at cost, which cut costs in half. Jerond Belton, designer of the memorial, said there was no time to linger over the anger. Instead, he saw opportunity in the rubble.

"When someone does something like this, it's such a negative thing. But I know we have to move on," he said. "I couldn't go out there and jump up and down and say Iím going after whoever. We have to move on. When I look back on it, I think everything happens for a reason. It may be a negative, but there still has to be something positive out there somewhere."

Belton said the reconstruction will give him the opportunity to improve the artwork, something he wanted to do years ago but couldnít. Brenda Watson is looking into adding the "forgotten soldier" to the memorial and said that a statue was planned to honor the K-9 handlers and their dogs who served in Vietnam. Her husband, David, sees the community's response bringing people together.

"When this happened, everybody in the world wanted to help get it back up," he said. "It lifted people up from the anger. What made the memorial so unique was that so many people had input on it. Each one of us who worked on it had our own reasons for doing it, and we felt that it had purpose."

Du Bose cites a critical difference between the early days of the memorial and now. "In the beginning it was a dream that four or five or six or eight people had," he said. "Back then we were asking people to invest a bunch of money, and they had no assurance we were going to do it. Well, now here it is, and somebody came and tore it up, and we're going to put it back. Do you want to help? Thatís the difference now. Itís been there for ten years. Itís part of Durham. Letís get it back up."

Sacred Ground: The N.C. Moving Wall

By Jim Belshaw

Phyllis Zawislak cried over every name on The Wall. In each letter of each name, she saw young men, not measurements of how far she had come and how far she had yet to go. She imagined pain and fear; she mourned over promise cut short; she recoiled at the violent deaths; she envisioned the dreadful grief of families and loved ones. She prayed over the names.

She made no rubbing of names from The Wall. She took no pictures of it, made no pilgrimages to stand near it and touch it. She is not related to anyone on The Wall, and she knows no one on it.

Yet today, some of her most cherished friends are veterans of the war, a sentiment enthusiastically returned by those veterans. She has never been to Washington, D.C., to see The Wall. But she created one. Letter by letter, name by name, each hand-painted--Phyllis Zawislak created the North Carolina Moving Wall.

In 1992, she was 65 years old, a native New Yorker retired in North Carolina, a new member of Greenville's Grace Church. The church planned a special service for veterans. The pastor knew her background as a graphics artist. He asked her to inscribe the names of the North Carolina Vietnam dead--more than 1,600--on a wall made of six panels that would be 8 feet high and 24 feet long. She was to hand letter each name.

"He gave me a month's notice, and I said I certainly could do it," she said.

She received a few pictures of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington as a guide. She couldn't duplicate the granite of the original, but the pictures at least gave her shades of light, hints of what might be. It took two weeks for someone from the church to provide the materials. By the time the materials arrived, only ten days remained. Then came other problems.

"I'm dyslexic," she said. "The first couple of days were a total loss. I couldn't read off the paper and create the names on The Wall. We asked for people to come in an hour at a time to read and spell each name so I could get this thing moving. By then it was eight days until the veteransí service."

Zawislak worked 10 to 12 hours a day. In addition to the deadline that loomed, the physical demands of the job were like nothing she'd encountered. She was accustomed to a horizontal surface, a desk on which to work, not a wall. Working vertically created challenges she had never known.

She slept in the church the night before the service. She finished the last name twenty minutes before the service began. The church later donated the memorial to VVA Chapter 272.

"This was one of the most emotional experiences I've ever gone through," she said. "I don't know how to explain it. As I picked each name, as I did each letter, something was going on inside of me that I couldn't quite understand. They weren't just names. They were young men."

She remembered the World War II years, when she was a teenager. "Flashbacks," she said. She recalled visiting hospitals through a USO program that brought Americans at home to the servicemen wounded in battle. As she painted the names of the Vietnam dead on The Wall, those long ago wounded men came to her.

"The images of those men are so deeply etched in my mind," Zawislak said. "I can see them as I sit here now--lost arms, missing legs, heads bandaged. The thing I cannot erase is the look on their faces. They were absolutely devoid of life."

When she finished painting the more than 1,600 names on the North Carolina Moving Wall, everything balanced, everything lined up, no blank spaces, no name left out. "Was it God behind this?" she wonders. "There's no way that under only my power I could have done every name so it was uniform. It's the strangest thing. This was something I had to do with the Lord. I wanted God to humble me. I said, 'Lord, I'm doing this for you. Humble me.í"

Ten years after creating her Wall, people suddenly are finding out about it. She is asked to attend events where The North Carolina Moving Wall is being displayed and she is astounded that when she is introduced, the audience stands and salutes her. The Daily Reflector in Greenville did a feature story on her. The unexpected disappearance of anonymity startles her. "I'm just a little old lady who retired in North Carolina," she said.

Earlier this year Phyllis Zawislak was voted an honorary member of Chapter 272, only the third person to receive the accolade. "There's a kinship with these men that I don't understand," she said of the veterans who have become so close to her. "There's a kinship with each name on The Wall."

She marvels at the power of what she created. She describes its visitors behaving as people do at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and its traveling replica--some touch the names, some stand away, too fearful to approach, some leave notes and mementoes. She searches for words to capture The Wall's power and settles on one--"awesome."

"People come to see this North Carolina Wall and it's awesome," she said. "There is a deadly silence behind this Wall. It is stark; it is still; it is silent. I look at it and think there is no way I could have done that by myself in ten days."

Chapter 272 Chaplain Jack Ward, who has become a close friend, likens the power of the memorials--all of them--to another spiritual icon. "The Wall in Washington, the Moving Wall, the North Carolina Wall--they all come under the same classification--a religious ground, a sacred ground," he said. "For vets who know the names, it's a moving thing that takes them back to their remembrances; for families, it is a husband or a son or a father or a daughter or a sister; for people who never had much to do with the Vietnam War, they sense this among the others. It's approached in silence. It's a sacred ground to stand on, to kneel in prayer. It's almost like the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. It's the Vietnam veterans' Wailing Wall. It's their most holy ground."

   

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