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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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."