They came nearly 20-strong out of the gathering dusk of Tuesday evening and into the American Legion Hall in Edgartown. All are veterans of the Viet Nam war. They came to talk about honor, specifically about who should be honored and how for service in Viet Nam. They came to talk about the creation of a Vineyard memorial monument dedicated to those who served in Viet Nam and to those who died in Viet Nam.
They came with their emotions high, their opinions strong, their arguments heated. At issue is a Viet Nam memorial to whom — only to those Islanders born and bred on the Vineyard, or also to those veterans with a more recent link to this community.
And in the end, after a ragged, sometimes angry meeting of two and a half hours, these veterans of Viet Nam appeared to make progress toward a consensus, toward a compromise that will bring unity and not division among veterans based on their place of birth.
Their search for a solution to precisely what is an appropriate memorial came despite warnings from Edgartown’s Woody Williams, head of the monument committee. He said many native Vine­yarders had told him they will not participate in the memorial if the names of more recent arrivals to the Island are included.
The group directed Mr. Williams to talk more with those veterans and to try to win support for the all-Island monument.
Suggestions for a compromise were raised by Joseph Eldredge, a Vineyard architect and a veteran after World War II. His comments appeared to win support at the meeting. “It can be done in a way that will please everybody,” he said. Mr. Eldredge volunteered his services to assist in the architectural design of the memorial.
He said it is possible to design the monument to give special prominence to the names of combat veterans born on the Vineyard and to those who moved here later.
There were those who felt only Viet Nam veterans that had enlisted from the Vineyard should be listed on the monument. Others wanted the names to be expanded to include anyone who resided on the Vineyard and could prove their residence up until April 30, 1985.
Mr. Williams said some felt the monument should honor only the combat veterans and not veterans from the Viet Nam era.
There were veterans who wanted only the names of the dead on the monument.
Mr. Eldredge said the design could separate Vineyard natives from more recent Island residents, and separate those killed in action from those who returned.
“We’ve come a long way. We’ve paraded together. We got our welcome home. Our departed comrades never got a welcome home. I think this memorial should be in honor of them,” said Hank Decoteau of Vineyard Haven, the Dukes County assistant veterans’ agent.
“If a monument is going to be built, I want my brother’s name on it. My brother, Peter Patrick Roche, was killed Jan. 3, 1970 in Lai Kei,” Paul Roche of Oak Bluffs said. “And I want my son to see his uncle’s name.”
Mr. Roche said his brother was not a resident of the Vineyard. But he said: “Respectfully to all of you, I would like my brother’s name on the monument, for the express purpose of my son who is growing up. He is four and a half years old.”
“I think era veterans should be on the monument — and natives only, the same as the World War II guys. They had a monument to those native Islanders that served,” Mr. Williams said.
Robert Convery, an Edgartown resi­dent and World War II veteran, told the committee it has a lot of work ahead.
“We spent three years trying to get names for the monument. If they were enlisted from the Island, then they could be on the list. That was the way we did it,” Mr. Convery said. “We had problems. Guys that were born here, who had enlisted off-Island, couldn’t be put on the list because they enlisted somewhere else.”
Mr. Williams said he wants the memorial to follow the tradition of listing only native Vineyarders as do the other Vineyard war monuments dating back to the Civil War.
“I don’t like tradition. I don’t think of the Viet Nam War as a traditional war,” Douglas Asselin of Vineyard Haven said. “It wasn’t traditional when we came home. We didn’t take orders in a traditional manner and we didn’t come home in a traditional manner. That blows all hell through your tradition theory.”
Christopher H. Gompert of Edgar-town said: “Woody told me about his idea for a memorial a while ago. At that time I thought it was something worth pursu­ing. This has nothing to do with the fact that I wasn’t born here.
“Never in my 18 years since leaving Viet Nam did I feel that I had served a noble cause. To the contrary, I have tended to dwell on the question of what purpose I actually served and why. I was awarded no medals other than a purple heart and don’t feel that I deserved any. Many of the true heroes have received their silver and bronze stars and many others are dead. The medals have already been handed out and I can think of nothing I did that qualifies me for having my name on a memorial.
“I know of some that died and many on my hospital ward that lost legs and arms, often more than one of each. Any sacrifice I made in terms of pain, discomfort, fear of being far from home was minute in terms of what those people experienced or ceased to experience.
“Putting my name on a memorial won’t change my perception of that experience and won’t make me feel any better about it. I know what I did and I’m certain that most of you know what you did and who you are without being memorialized.
“I’m less concerned about what names are on this memorial than I am about the message that it will leave for people who didn’t experience what we experienced. I hope that message is something we can decide upon in a more agreeable manner than the topic of whose names will appear.
“I am just telling you that I am not from the Island and I don’t expect my name to be on the memorial. I don’t expect my name to be on any memorial. This one especially. I don’t know if my saying that makes anyone who wasn’t from here feel better. I definitely feel the names of the dead should absolutely be on the monument.”
Tom Bennett of Edgartown said: “I’ve been to a lot of these meetings. And what is important to me, more than anything else, was our coming together. Whether they are combat veterans or era vets.
“I think the war tore us all up. It tore our country up. For me it is a time now for all of us to come together to deal with this part of our lives. I see it as a healing process. I hate to see this deteriorate into further tearing up of all of us. That is one of the reasons why I want people, whether they are era veterans or combat veterans, to be listed on the monument.”
Mr. Bennett went on: “I know I never had to go through what you guys had to go through. I had to go through a part of it. I feel I want to be a part of it. I also want the other people that are here, that call this Island their home, to be able to be a part of it. Maybe we can find a way to make it okay for all of us.”
Mr. Williams said the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen has offered land for the monument only if Vineyard native names are listed.
Mr. Roche said: “This is sick. You build your monument. I’ll build my monument. You remove my monument and I’ll put it back. That is the respect for my brother who died for this country. He went through hell. You came back alive. A helicopter pilot was killed trying to get him out. Now you respect my brother.”
Mr. Bennett said: “I think anybody who calls the Vineyard their home is an Islander. I’m proud to be a native. But I have to look at the facts that others look at the Vineyard as a home, too. And this is their home. I think we have to try to get unstuck from the past.”
Bill Smith, an Edgartown World War II veteran, said: “I am speaking as a friend, a veteran of another war. I applaud your efforts. You may have to compromise. If I were you, I would thank the town of Oak Bluffs for their gift, but I would say ‘no thanks’ if they are going to set conditions. I don’t think they have a right to interfere. I am not going to give you my opinion about whose names should be on the monument, but I will support whatever you decide.”
Russell Rogers of Oak Bluffs said: “I was born and raised here. I didn’t get shot. Certainly because he [Christopher Gompert] got shot, I think his name should be on it. He got a purple heart to prove it. I am not afraid to have my name on the monument with others. But I don’t want it there alone.”
Mr. Eldredge said: “I came here as an architect. I’ve got a lot of respect for all arguments expressed for this monument. War is trying to resolve differences. People forget that.
“I can see names of those who died and those who are missing architecturally placed prominently, because they made the ultimate sacrifice. For that is what memorials are all about — that sacrifice. Then I can see a listing of natives, whatever you use as your definition. I can see ways of listing them architecturally so that people would understand the additional people.
Mr. Williams expressed concern about veterans who did not attend the meeting and hoped they will understand any new concept for a memorial. “I know of at least 20 people who are saying natives only.”
Mr. Decoteau said: “Well maybe once this idea is presented to them properly, they could change their opinion.”
Mr. Bennett said: “We’ve got to inform them.”

Editorial: The Wonderful and the Sad

There is something wonderful and something sad now going on in the debate about the proper kind of new Island memorial to honor both those who died and those who served in the Viet Nam war. What is wonderful is the Vineyard veterans of Viet Nam are getting together to discuss the erection of such a monument. They deserve the full support of the entire Island community, year-round and seasonal residents alike.
What is sad is the division, at times emotional argument, about what is appropriate for this new Island memorial. Is it place of birth, for example, that is to dictate in the end what names are to be memorialized? Is this memorial only for those born ,on the Vineyard, or is it also for those more recent Island arrivals who served and who may havelost their lives in southeast Asia? These are but some of the issues now being argued.
At a meeting of Viet Nam veterans the other night Tom Bennett, an Island-born resident of Edgartown, put the point eloquently when he said: “I know I never had to go through what you guys had to go through. I had to go through a part of it. I feel I want to be a part of it. I also want the other people that are here, that call this Island their home, to be able to be a part of it. Maybe we can find a way to make it okay for all of us.”
Surely, as Mr. Bennett says, there must be a way to ease the agony of Viet Nam for all. This was the bloodiest and the costliest war in American history. It not only divided this nation, it tore the country apart. For too long there has been too much division. Only recently has America begun to rectify this. The sense of unity, honor and dignity carried on the polished black granite face of the new monument in Washington is a symbol of accomplishment, of commitment, of national mood.
Accordingly, in this Vineyard community that is capable of such tolerance, the Viet Nam veterans must find a way to resolve their differences in a new Island memorial that is fitting to unity and not to more division. That is the aim we all should support.