The angel spreads its wings just as it did 25 years ago when the memorial took to this park, and just as a loftier angel may have done four decades back when shielding survivors of the Vietnam War.
While a patina covered the angel’s wings long ago, the flags tucked below, out of the rain, remain fresh and bright, as are the memories of those who served in Vietnam before coming home to forge this monument, remembering the 313 Montanans who died in that war.
On Friday, a handful of Vietnam veterans and supporters gathered in the park, not to reflect on the war but rather to commemorate the 25th anniversary of this monument, the state’s official Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Rose Park.
Like the Vietnam War, building a memorial to the fallen proved to be a battle of its own, requiring backers to separate the politics of the conflict from those who served on their nation’s behalf.
“It was a labor of love, but it was blood, sweat and tears that went into this thing,” said committee member and Vietnam veteran Bob Whaley. “It was nickels and dimes and quarters and dollars and lots of help from people across the state. A few corporations stepped up, but a few that we really thought would help us didn’t.”
In Montana, Scruggs’ cautions rang true, but Brown and the committee pressed on.
“We weren’t commemorating the war, we were commemorating the people who served,” Brown said. “It had nothing to do with the war and its handling. It was the people who served, and it was a long, hard-fought battle.”
Brown served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970 as an Army medic for thoracic surgeons. The memories of his tour are still raw. Two of his best childhood friends are remembered on the memorial, Tom Gross and George Rolan Anderson.
So, too, are the memories fresh for Mike Halligan, who served as an infantry platoon leader for the 101st Airborne Division outside Hue City from Thanksgiving Day in 1969 though 1970.
“When I look at the pictures I brought home, everyone is 19 and 20 in that war,” said Halligan. “It was fought by such young people. The memories of serving there – the guys were great, we did what we were told, and we came home to a difficult situation.”
Years later, Halligan ran and was elected as a state legislator, serving from 1981 to 2002. Eleven years after the memorial’s dedication, he joined legislator Dale Mahlum in carrying Senate Bill 352, designating Rose Park as the state’s official Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Calling the park a sacred site, Halligan noted the various monuments that remember the sacrifice of so many Montanans from so many different wars. It’s a quiet and peaceful place, this park where the roses bloom in spring and people often sit and reflect on loved ones lost.
“It wasn’t political or partisan in any way,” Halligan said of the legislation. “The memorial finally did begin the process of healing those wounds for a lot of veterans. It started to separate us from the politics of the war, and it recognized service over anything political.”
Creating the memorial wasn’t easy, but the work paid off. After the unveiling on Nov. 11, 1988, the monument was chosen as the cover art for “Warriors Remembered: Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home.” Compiled by Albert Nahas, the book documents Vietnam memorials in all 50 states and notes the struggles faced by those who built them.
The recognition was welcome for those like Whaley, who first served in Vietnam in 1962 near the Soc Trang Province on the Mekong Delta, where he flew with one of the first Marine Corps aviation squadrons to enter the country.
By 1965, Whaley was flying Huey gunships and medevacs. On Dec. 6, 1965, while providing cover for a retrograde of Marines coming off the beach, his aircraft was hit by enemy gunfire. A North Vietnamese battalion had slipped into the area undetected.
“They shot our tail rotor off while we were at 1,100 feet,” Whaley said. “We went into a terrible spin. We smashed in real hard. We all broke our backs, but we all survived.”
Jump forward to the 1980s when the memorial committee found itself in disagreement on what design to use. As Brown tells it – and Whaley confirms with a laugh – Whaley stood up at the meeting and noted the angel in one of the two designs.
It was an angel, he said, that pulled him out of Vietnam alive.
“I know (the angel) above pulled my sorry ass out a couple times,” Whaley said. “(Brown) seems to think that cinched the (monument’s) design. The two crashes I had should have been fatal. I don’t know why we survived, but we did.”
Even after all these years, the men who created this monument, and those who gathered again on Friday, remain brothers in arms. They are guys like Jerry Ballas, who served as a combat engineer in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 and helped design the grounds surrounding the monument.
And guys like Jay Whitcomb, who served as an infantry platoon leader from 1965 to 1966 with the Army’s 1st Division, and Jim McDonald, who lost a childhood friend in Vietnam in 1962, then stepped forward as a needed financial sponsor, even when others refused to do so.
“It was a really tough go for a very long time,” said Larry Keogh, reflecting on the efforts of so many to make the memorial a reality. “It was a tough fundraiser for sure. In 1988, Vietnam still wasn’t too popular, and there wasn’t as much military appreciation as there is now.”