The effort started modestly. Members of the Vietnam Veterans of America Treasure Valley Chapter #1025 spent months setting up their booth at the mall and various stores, selling bumper stickers, key chains and the like. The aim: raising money for Boise’s first Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
They raised more than $20,000 over the course of a year and a half.
“Then we went to the corporate community. They really gave,” said J.D. Poss, vice president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1025.
Around 25 local companies pitched in, adding thousands of dollars worth of donations, labor and materials. On Memorial Day, the city of Boise and veterans groups will dedicate the new monument at a public ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park. It will include a Black Hawk helicopter flyover and the reading of the 217 names inscribed in the black granite, representing Idahoans who died in Vietnam between 1961 and 1975.
The names, said Poss, include that of Jimmy Nakayama, the 22-year-old soldier from Rigby whose November 1965 death from burns sustained in a napalm attack is portrayed in the film “We Were Soldiers.”
“It was important for us to honor these kids. There was no monument for them,” said Poss, a retired police officer from Palm Springs, Calif., who was drafted into the Army in 1969 at the age of 23.
Like cemeteries, monuments are to benefit the living. In the case of the Vietnam War Memorial and other war memorials, they’re reminders of our past, and what happened, and how we can learn and grieve, but also move forward.
Amy Pence-Brown, historian with Preservation Idaho
A MONUMENT’S POWER: ‘I JUST BROKE DOWN’
The Vietnam War and memorials to it have often stirred controversy. Stories of military personnel being criticized and abused after their return because of the unpopularity of the war have become part of the American narrative. Boise’s new monument — whose installation is long overdue, said city officials — is made from the same Indian black granite as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.
Even before it was built, that D.C. monument gathered public criticism. First there was the minimalist design — a long, spare wedge of black marble minus the usual patriotic markers and statues of traditional monuments. Then there was the designer, Maya Lin, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Lin was a 21-year-old undergraduate at Yale when she entered the public design competition for the monument in 1981. Panelists chose her design out of 1,440 submissions. At the time, many opponents of Lin’s design also objected to Lin’s Asian heritage in the context of a Vietnam memorial.
But the monument, inscribed with the names of the men and women who died in the war in chronological order, has since become one of the most revered sites in the country. Lin, subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary “A Strong Clear Vision,” went on to design other notable monuments, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama, which integrates the names of men and women who died in that struggle with stone and flowing water.
Idaho has one other Vietnam veterans memorial, in Idaho Falls. Vietnam veteran Tom Chriswell designed the memorial. It features a 24-foot inverted “V” symbolizing the controversy and diversity of opinions surrounding the conflict.
Phil Hawkins is volunteer coordinator at the Idaho State Veterans Home; he served two tours in Vietnam in the Army and earned two Purple Hearts. He said it took him many years before he could “face the wall.” In the early 1980s, he was in Washington, D.C., at a training conference. An avid runner, Hawkins decided to run to the Capitol Mall one Sunday afternoon.
At that time, the monument was new. There were no guides, no rosters of fallen soldiers’ names, “no way to ID where your people were at,” said Hawkins. Still, he reached the wall and miraculously found himself standing in front of the engraved name of Nakayama. Hawkins, now 72, grew up in Rigby and was a close friend of the fallen soldier.
“I just broke down. I couldn’t move. I was devastated,” said Hawkins.
In the years since, Hawkins has made a slow peace with the wall. When a traveling version of the famous memorial came through Boise some years ago, Hawkins helped put the panels up for public view. “But I didn’t look at it,” he said. In time, he was able to visit the Idaho State Vietnam War Memorial in Idaho Falls, installed in 1990.
“Finally, I had to go back to D.C.,” said Hawkins. “This time, Norma (Hawkins’ wife) was with me. She told me it was time. She walked me through it. This time, I was OK to go to Jimmy.”
‘KEEP IT CLEAN, KEEP IT SHINING’
Having a tangible memorial in Boise is an important recognition for veterans here, said Hawkins, who wasn’t part of the Boise project but applauded the local veterans who made it reality.
The VA home, which counts 64 Vietnam veterans among its residents, started its own program two years ago to recognize them with medallions during special ceremonies. Now residents will be able to pay tribute at the memorial as well.
We’re proud to be involved and humbled at the same time.
Jerry Pugh, community programs coordinator with Boise Parks & Rec, on the city’s role, including new turf around the memorial and staffers to smooth the installation project
Amy Pence-Brown is a historian with Preservation Idaho who has researched the traditions of death, monuments and mourning; she leads tours of cemeteries.
“Memorials and monuments like the Vietnam War Memorial are an important part of honoring something that affected a lot of people, those who died and the survivors they left,” she said. “Cemeteries offer a private space. But monuments to events, to wars, offer a more public mourning space.”
Many monuments to wars, even though they’re inevitably somber, also convey a sense of hopefulness, said Pence-Brown — a hopefulness that war won’t have to happen again.
Memorial Monuments and Vaults in Meridian made the Boise monument. Owner Joe Chandler said he was eager to be part of the project after meeting with the local veterans who came up with the monument design — a central polished stone surrounded by granite benches.
Part of the power of the national memorial is that its smooth surface reflects visitors’ own images as they read the names of the fallen. The Boise memorial will have a similar effect.
“We will continue to care for the monument. We want to keep it clean, keep it shining like it will be shining on Memorial Day,” Chandler said.
The new memorial will join other monuments in Veterans Memorial Park, including the Combat Wounded Veterans Memorial, Korean War Memorial, POW/MIA Memorial, Pearl Harbor Memorial and Wake Island Memorial.
Memorial Day ceremonies
▪ City of Nampa ceremony, 10 a.m. at the Veteran’s Loop of Kohlerlawn Cemetery, 76 6th St. N. In addition, retired railroad police officer Bill Dean will lead walking tours of the graves of prominent citizens at 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., starting at Veteran’s Loop.
▪ City of Meridian ceremony, 11 a.m. at the Rock of Veterans Memorial in Kleiner Park, 1900 N. Records Ave.
▪ Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication, noon, Veterans Memorial Park, 930 Veterans Memorial Parkway.
▪ Civil War Volunteers group will conduct its annual Civil War flag-raising ceremony, eulogy and gun salute at noon at the Silent Camp at the Veterans Monument in Morris Hill Cemetery, 317 N. Latah, Boise. The ceremony will be repeated at 1:15 p.m. in the Fort Boise Military Reserve Cemetery, 1101 Mountain Cove Road.