It’s been more than a generation since this country sent its soldiers to battle in the jungles of a small country called Vietnam, and there are many Islanders who believe their community has yet to pay proper tribute to those who served.
A small group of Vineyarders, including Vietnam veterans and friends of veterans, spent time last winter quietly working on such a project. Now they are going public to help raise needed funds. Despite past controversies over a memorial, the current volunteers think they have come up with a plan that will win broad support, one that looks forward instead of backward and will help bring the community together.
Thomas Bennett of Edgartown has led Vietnam veterans group meetings for years. He is a clinic director for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and in his spare time this past winter, Mr. Bennett has spent many hours meeting with the group.
Most of the committee members are familiar Vineyard faces. They include Sherman Goldstein of the Tisbury Inn and three disabled Vietnam veterans: Peter F. Johnson of Chilmark, Stephen Maxner of Tisbury and Benjamin (Skip) Mayhew of Edgartown.
Together they have met with Tisbury sculptor Barney Zeitz, and work already has begun on a monument that will stand approximately nine and a half feet tall. It is made of iron and stainless steel and when completed will be erected on a small spit of land at the corner of Vineyard Haven’s Main street and State Road, next to the Tisbury Inn. It is a spot where today there sits an old ship’s anchor. Mr. Goldstein, a participant in the committee from the start, has donated the land and the expenses of maintaining the property.
It wasn’t just U.S. service men and woman who were deeply touched by the war. In addition to the loss of 58,000 Americans, there were two million Vietnamese killed. The war scarred a generation with bitter controversy.”It tore families apart,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson said Mr. Zeitz was a perfect choice because he already has created sculptures memorializing the torments of history. He was commissioned by for the Rhode Island Holocaust sculpture at the Wang Center in Boston. His work is displayed throughout the country.
The group first started meeting in Mr. Zeitz’s living room last November. Mr. Johnson said they met frequently, sometimes for a half hour and sometimes for as long as three hours. They went over several renderings before coming up with the finished work.
At the top of the sculpture is a stainless steel Griffin, a mythological bird with the head of an eagle, the body of a lion and the wings of an angle. The creation by Mr. Zeitz will stand on a pedestal above an iron rib cage.
“This is guarded by a shield of stainless steel,” according to a fund-raising brochure issued by the committee. The shield symbolizes strength but “it also clearly shows its vulnerability and weakness. The inscription on the shield will read simply, ‘Vietnam.’
“We expect this work of art to be open to a myriad of interpretations and believe it will be experienced powerfully but personally by each viewer.”
Already the committee has received the support of members of the Island’s veteran groups. A fund for the $15,000 needed to complete the project was set up at the Martha’s Vineyard Cooperative Bank. Support has come from veterans and nonveterans alike.
Mr. Johnson said the first time he went to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington he was deeply touched. “It had a healing effect for me. I think this monument has the same effect.”
More than 10 years ago a large group of veterans tried to bring about a memorial of a different kind. The project failed for a number of reasons. Mr. Johnson said this monument doesn’t preclude anyone else from doing something different.
In recent years the state legislature renamed the Lagoon Pond drawbridge as the Korean and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge.
Mr. Bennett said this new effort is intended to go beyond a recognition of veterans. The committee set forth a written purpose: “The goal is to create a memorial on Martha’s Vineyard which will, after the passage of two decades, be reflective of the feelings and experiences of those who were affected by what we believe to be the seminal event of our generation. It is our hope that this work will echo, in some meaningful way, those experiences to each viewer as the decades continue to slide away.”


Editorial: Remembering Vietnam

Less we forget, America’s longest and costliest war in Vietnam ended twenty-one years ago with the fall of Saigon. The scars of that conflict in Southeast Asia remain even today as the nation still struggles to heal the wounds of war. It was a war that took more than half a million Americans to Vietnam, leaving 58,000 dead and 365,000 other casualties. And finally it was a war that tore the country apart and left an entire nation divided and uncertain about itself and its future role in the world.
Ten years ago on the Vineyard Vietnam veterans launched a campaign to erect a war memorial in memory of those who fought and fell in Southeast Asia. But the discussion and emotions of that moment were too painful and the project ended without agreement.
Today, a full decade later, there is a new and quiet effort to construct an Island Vietnam memorial that asks only that we all remember the conflict regardless of any emotion or position on the war. The plan calls for a single word inscription, “Vietnam,” and its message of simplicity eloquently speaks to all affected by the war, to veterans and protesters alike.
Above all else, this new effort carries to disagreement and clearly shows how much healing has taken place over the last ten years. The memorial, designed by Island sculptor Barney Zeitz, combines a stainless steel griffin - head of an eagle, leg of a lion, outstretched wing of an angel - atop a ribbed central column and a sweeping abstract shield to tie the elements together. It is to be placed on sidewalk property donated by Tisbury Inn owner Sherman Goldstein at the intersection of State Road and Main street in Vineyard Haven.
The quiet move to erect a Vietnam memorial on the Island is worthy of full public support, from year-round Vineyarders and seasonal residents alike. It will take $15,000 to complete the memorial this summer, a small price to pay to ensure we do not forget this war that cost so many so much.