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Vietnam vets receive overdue recognition

New Vietnam War Memorial to be dedicated June 16 in Auburn

The Mourning Soldier centerpiece of the Vietnam War Memorial expresses gratitude to all who fought and died for freedom and democracy in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Kathy Tran

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Throughout the Vietnam War, many of those who served in the American or Allied forces came home not only unwelcomed and dishonored but spurned and spit upon. For those South Vietnamese unable to leave following the war, the war went on a lot longer. Many veterans were imprisoned for "reeducation" while their families lost their homes, jobs and way of life.

Four to five decades after their service, veterans throughout the United States have begun to honor their own. For example, the Long Island Air Force Association in New York has, to date, conducted 22 ceremonies at which they've presented 675 DoD Vietnam 50th Anniversary Commemorative Medals to Vietnam veterans from all services.

Here in Washington state, years of effort by a coalition of Americans and South Vietnamese to build a fitting monument will finally bear fruit June 16 at 11 a.m. with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication of a new Vietnam War Memorial at Les Gove Park in Auburn.

Lan Phan Jones is the daughter of a South Vietnamese soldier who spent five years incarcerated by the Viet Cong. When she finally came to the United States in 1990, she was very much aware of the dejection felt by both American and South Vietnamese veterans who, despite the outcome of the war, had done their best yet remained essentially maligned and voiceless. As early as 2006, she sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide the long overdue recognition that deceased and living veterans both deserve.

Along with others in the state's South Vietnamese refugee community, Jones worked to add a plaque to the Vietnam War Memorial in Olympia that would thank American veterans on behalf of the South Vietnamese. Those plans were cancelled in the fall of 2011 because of political controversy. Then Peter Lewis, the mayor of Auburn and a Vietnam veteran, heard about the project and offered to build the memorial in Auburn.

The city requested that a nonprofit organization be responsible for building and maintaining the proposed memorial, so supporters met in June 2013 to form the American-Vietnamese War Memorial Alliance. An all-volunteer nonprofit 501(c) (3) organization, it is managed by a board of directors representing both American and South Vietnamese veterans and their supporters. The Alliance is recognized as a partner in the U.S. 50-Year Vietnam War Commemorative Project headquartered in the Pentagon. The city of Auburn agreed to provide land for the memorial if the Alliance agreed to construct and maintain it for 50 years.  

Jason Le Tran developed the memorial's design, which features a ground-level circular plaza and a Wall of Honor that displays up to 1,000 individual granite tiles honoring individual Vietnam War veterans. Granite panels on each side of the wall recognize U.S. and South Vietnamese branches of service.

A porcelain enamel Vietnam veteran insignia stands above the inscription, which is written in both English and Vietnamese, "We remember with gratitude the soldiers of the United States of America and the Republic of Vietnam who fought and died for freedom and democracy in Vietnam." The image of the Mourning Soldier is displayed at the center of the wall.

The Americans and South Vietnamese who formed a partnership to work together over 12 long years to bring the memorial into being have also formed a bridge of dialogue between the refugee and larger Washington community. It is a place where the healing that so many have long sought has finally begun.

New Vietnam War Memorial Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony and Dedication, 11 a.m., Saturday, June 16, Les Gove Park, 910 9th St. SE, Auburn

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