VIETNAM VETERANS OF OREGON
NEVER GIVE UP! NEVER GIVE UP!
(by Jud Blakely)
"We're gonna do it, Jerry, we're gonna do it!"
14 November 1982. Ben Stanley and Jerry Pero were somewhere in the night sky flying back to Portland from Washington D.C. And though neither of them realized it at the time, their lives would soon be turned inside out and upside down. A calling had found them.
VIETNAM VETERANS OF OREGON
"Yeah, do what, Ben?"
"When we get home, Jerry, we're gonna build a memorial for us, for the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon, that's what!"
Five years later and almost to the day, Jerry Pero and Ben Stanley were front and center at the moment their brash and "impossible" dream came true. The date of that moment was 11 November 1987.
On that magic and so improbable day, the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Living Memorial was dedicated in Hoyt Arboretum two miles west of downtown Portland. They had climbed a mountain of mighty struggles since that moment on the plane and had never, never given up fighting for the dream of a true vet-born "Welcome Home."
Ben and Jerry (not the ice-cream gods), plus a core of loyal sidekicks, had been the energizers of a steep and rocky quest riddled with twists, turns, adversities, and pitfalls. A mission that so many wrote off as a noble aim but a fool's errand had turned out not to be impossible at all despite the fact that it kept on seeming like it was.
About 70 Oregonians were on hand in D.C. to be part of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on 13 November 1982. More than a few were jolted by the sleek, hard visage of The Wall which struck them as a rank and woeful "ledger" of victims, a dark harvest of names with no context and no vestige of honorable service.
Such feelings aside, they shared a profound experience back in D.C. that planted the seeds of vision and resolve that would lead (five years later) to the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Living Memorial.
But it would demand far more than just the shared euphoria of their experience in D.C. to sustain them as they fought and fought to achieve what was needed for the Memorial to emerge in some form.
Their resolve to forge ahead would have to be merged into a crucial array of business, organizational, and political savvy that was missing in the "birth pangs" stage of what became a legal fact in mid-1983 as the VVOMF, the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial Fund. And so, Step One, the "linchpin" step, had been taken.
"We really didn't know what we were getting ourselves into," said Jerry Pero, "but it didn't take very long for us to figure out how significant this was going to be for an awful lot of people."
The story of the men and women who returned home from D.C. in late 1982 is a book, not a mere website page. I aim here to offer a sense of the battles they faced in 1983 (and after) as they sought to raise funds to honor their dead sons, husbands, friends, and buddies. The truth is, the public just tended to shun them or ignore them.
For they faced (at the time) a public that was largely "gun shy," worn down by the tragic drama of the war but with a hard-core segment still anxious to smear Vietnam vets as degenerate outlaws. No gusher of latent support lurked just below the surface waiting to be tapped into by the highly motivated "troops" of VVOMF.
In particular, we were ignored or waved off by our so-called "peers" for whom the "return" of Vietnam (in any form) might also stir awake an unpaid debt of shame linked to what they had or had not done in a past that yet remained far too close for comfort.
As the snap, crackle, and pop of social hostilities grew louder and more ubiquitous back in those days, my comrades and I answered the call and took our chances as our fathers and uncles had during the Second World War. The vast majority of our peers did not.
NOTE: not serving was an honorable path unless not serving was based on acts of deceit or fleeing to a sanctuary or hiding out here at home (ie, disappearing) to skulk as an invisible cipher off the grid and on the run until the danger of qualifying to serve was over.
But not serving, then joining in to mock and slander we who did, that is hideously vile, a sin with a half-life of Always, and one for which very few veterans have the capacity (or desire) to forgive.
So that was the chill, gray environment facing the VVOMF as they set out on their dream-inspired quest to build a memorial to honor our dead, welcome home fellow vets, and help nurse back into public life a degree of civil respect that the toxic acrimony of the Vietnam years had done away with. Quite a piece of work lay ahead.
NOTE: the phrase "Thank you for your service" would not be uttered in sincerity in the spaces of public life for a decade or more but at least the go-to pejorative of "Baby Killer" was given a rest.
Vietnam vets, loathed and damned for years, had been retired (by time) from our starring role as inveterate villains cast by those who chose to avoid or evade the obligations we chose to accept.
But while the VVOMF had become more than a rising topic of interest and hope (and despite all the open get-togethers hosted by Frank and Fran Rauschkolb trying to bring about a consensus), no unifying focus had taken shape or seemed to be close at hand.
The Rauschkolbs lived in Beaverton. They transformed their home into a warm and waiting hearth for any Vietnam vet to unload his feelings on his life before, during, and after the war as well as comment on what a local memorial to honor KIAs ought to convey.
Fran was a mother who'd lost one son in combat while a second was only a few miles away. She, Frank, and her son who survived vowed to help create in or near Portland some kind of hallowed space to honor Oregonians who fell in Vietnam so far from home.
Both the role and purpose of American troops in Vietnam were called into question as early as 1966 but brazen exhibitions of rah-rah support for North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, and the Viet Cong didn't metastasize into fulsome staples of print and TV news until 1968.
After the surprise Tet Offensive by NVA and VC forces in January of '68, the conflict was deemed a stalemate by America's top news anchor, Walter Cronkite. The actions of our military were now viewed as having no value in a war we'd been told we couldn't win.
In fact, the NVA and VC forces were routed and killed in the thousands during Tet. This was a spectacular gamble for the North and the VC and turned into a spectacular defeat. In fact, America had won the war our press and TV kept on saying we couldn't win.
As the media shifted gears into a "lost cause" morality play, US troops were more and more pilloried as robot agents of the Establishment, an evil, vampire-like cabal that orchestrated all the carnage in order to gouge out more profits and power.
By 1983 (some eight years later after the war's tragic last chapter), the most vicious and invidious displays of contempt for Vietnam Vets were out of fashion. But the psychic damage done to so many who served in Harm's Way (by so many who did not) left countless vets in a pulsing funk of desolation and exile.
Many vets felt they'd been abandoned by their country and disowned. Those scars would not be erased by the mere demise of slurs like "Baby Killer." Those scars would not be erased by a change in tone among those who had harried them into exile.
When word got out that an effort was afoot to design a memorial to honor vets who'd been slurred and disregarded for years, then ignored, it was no surprise that many could not shrug off the after-effects of what had been imposed on them.
The term "healing grace" was not actually ever said in those early get-togethers but that sense did gradually become the prize that almost everyone came to accept (and keep their eyes on) during the low- profile and developing saga that played out from Veterans' Day 1982 to Veterans' Day 1987.
Sagas are lengthy and complex tales of unwavering belief and effort and defeat that lead (in the end) to triumph and vindication in the face of hardship and great uncertainty.
"Saga" is the only label that does justice to how the Living Memorial evolved from a strong (but very diffuse) dream into the unique and self-reflective calm of this simple haven that has offered so much healing grace to so many for so long.
In the fragile coalescing of the core handful of vets around the muster point of the Rauschkolbs, five vets soon meshed into a bond of dedication that was so tireless and focused that others came to refer to them as "The Five." Peggy Dolan was a crucial day-to-day organizer of details when the VVOMF set up shop in Beaverton.
The Five were Jerry Pero, Ben Stanley, Mike Goldade, Carlos Ricketson, and Dennis Kinzer. If not for The Five's unrelenting and never give up efforts, the goal to raise a memorial is likely to have been viewed as admirable but simply out of reach. Robert Hunter, VVOMF President in 1982, was part of those early planning efforts.
When Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh signed on as Honorary Chairman of the embryonic VVOMF in February of 1983, the dream no longer seemed so much an inspiring fancy as much as an unfeasible project that would starve for funds and, thus, wither and expire.
At this early stage no one had a realistic clue either how to raise serious money or how to apply it even if they could raise it. "It" was blithely assumed to be a million dollars. Also, all money would have to be contributed by private donors because the VVOMF refused to seek or accept public funds.
And so, the project was going to succeed or fail based on what people were ready, willing, and able to donate in money or labor. But who they were and how the VVOMF might reach and persuade them, that remained the #1 question of every day.
No one in the small VVOMF core group had more than anecdotal faith in how many fellow Oregonians would help in building a memorial to honor (so belatedly) those who died in what was America's longest war. They could only keep believing, roll up their sleeves, and get to work from sun-up to sundown.
They all harbored a degree of fear that such a project would dredge up and reignite the sordid acrimony that had so damaged us during the war and might still be lurking just a few inches beneath the (relatively) benign surface of public life.
But despite the pall of unknowns that ruled the context of 1983, the founders were able to win the support of Portland Mayor Frank Ivancie after Vic Atiyeh gave his influential name to the vague outline of this pre-drawing-board project. As a result, the Mayor's Chief of Staff, Tim Gallagher, was seated as a VVOMF Director.
A Navy vet of Vietnam, Tim brought a wealth of both governmental and bureaucratic smarts that no one else among the handful of VVOMF founders had. Minus Tim's arrival, the project may have stalled, faded, and died. But then, without the founders, the memorial dream never would've taken wing in the first place.
Just barely airborne by mid-1983 as a concept, the founders were trying to mold their vision into a strong focus, hash out a master plan, and also disarm tensions that had emerged and were tugging the project down. This might have undone and ended the VVOMF were it not for the strong, skillful, and open hand of Doug Bomarito to revitalize the fraying group.
Once again, the right person was in the right place at just the right time to keep the mission to build a memorial on track and save it from drifting back into the warm glow of a dream or idling as a concept with no chance to mature into a working plan. Jerry Pero? Well, Jerry was always (and unfailingly) just the right person at just the right time in just the right place.
In the VVOMF's birth-pangs stage (late 1982 to early 1984) when Doug Bomarito was handed the gavel and given the presidential clout to save and reconfigure the VVOMF, the founders had begun to bring in some money and meet with political and community leaders.
A Design Competition "jury" had been selected in mid-1983 to choose the design that best exemplified the all-inclusive goal of healing and reconciliation that bonded and motivated the founders. But the jurors were never called and never had to choose.
Instead, a design by Walker/Macy of Portland (for a "Living" Memorial) won over the VVOMF board as soon as Doug Macy unveiled the drawings and then detailed his concept of a Garden of Solace to honor the sacrifices and service of Oregonians while making no comment on the mean controversies of the war itself.
For the founders, this was a perfect incarnation of what they had been striving to create, a basic and accessible haven where the unyielding cycles of nature (melded with the cycles of daily life) might help reconcile those who had lost someone (or something) to Vietnam, lost, perhaps, some precious part of their own lives.
When the VVOMF chose the Living Memorial design by Walker/Macy in April 1984, Tim Gallagher and Doug Macy had been helping the founders locate an appropriate venue for several months. Their agile and constant work behind the scenes is what tipped the scales with local decision-makers in the right way.
The site itself was a sloping, tree-rich 12-acre plot in Hoyt Arboretum just west of downtown Portland near the Zoo. It was no more than a raw canvas of what seemed a less than favorable patch of terrain, part of a shut-down Par-3 golf course.
It would have to be excavated, then unerringly graded to sculpt a bowl-like cradle where luxuriant grass, stately trees, and vibrant plants would offer the healing power of Doug Macy's visionary design. He aimed to fulfill the dream that so many dared to believe in and had kept daring to pursue. They never gave up. Never. And so, they simply willed into being a living phenomenon.
Yes, the memorial had grown to become an avocation and passion for The Five and others. But none of them was equipped to huddle up with philanthropic or business heavy-hitters who had the dollars to fund this audaciously out-of-step project.
Clayton Hering was equipped to do that. Clayton, a Portland man (and former Marine officer, combat troop leader, and Vietnam vet), called Doug Bomarito one day in July of 1985 and assigned himself to the role of raising money that the VVOMF so desperately needed.
When Clayton was then able to bring in the help of the father of Bill LaGrand, a close friend lost in Vietnam (MIA), the funding that had seemed so out of reach now seemed attainable, more a matter of time than of divine intervention or random luck.
The high-end charitable givers saw these two as proven leaders within the business community of the Northwest who didn't waste time nor suffer fools nor get taken in by sentimental dry holes. When Clayton Hering and Will LaGrand talked about a Living Memorial, they definitely did get listened to. And listened to. And listened to.
But despite how often they got listened to and the earned respect they were shown (or how sympathetic the givers were), each charitable board was forced annually to decide how much to bestow on this or that worthy cause or fledgling project. And the Living Memorial, it was no more than one more worthy cause on a lengthy list.
Then, voila! Things changed when the Fred Meyer Charitable Trust gave the VVOMF a $90,000 grant in September 1986. This was enough to begin to coordinate the plan to transform the Memorial from a dream and design into the space it has become.
But this space would've stayed locked in limbo had the founders not gained Mayor Frank Ivancie's support in early 1983. Or failed to garner the support and insights of Doug Macy, Tim Gallagher, Doug Bomarito, Clayton Hering, and many others.
The founders had a dream and kindled their dream into an energizing vision, but that vision had no chance to evolve without the synergism of those four and their sure hands, their sharp minds, and the web of influential contacts each had based on the success each achieved in his own chosen professional field.
FACT: the funding to build a Living Memorial was light years beyond the capacity of what could be raised by auctions, garage sales, picnics, barbecues, pizza parties, and golf tourneys. Or contribution cans at 7-11s or craft sales or car washes or...
Money from these micro-events got the VVOMF airborne and kept it alive (the dream would've died if such events had not been carried out) but the larger effort was buried in limbo until the Associated General Contractors of Oregon board voted to build Doug Macy's design as their annual (voluntary) project.
That was a "game-changer," a Hail-Mary caught for a miraculous gain in the nick of time. But the game (the mission) to build a memorial was not yet over and done and won.
This turn of fortune had a value of about $500,000 and was estimated as maybe half the eventual total cost of the project, which was an awful lot of money the VVOMF didn't have to raise. FACT: the VVOMF had no more chance to bring in that much funding than a snowball had of not melting in Death Valley in August.
FACT: the contributions made by John and Jane Oregonian were negligible, far less than needed and far, far less than even the modest expectations of those on the front lines of the VVOMF. The public (in general) gave a bored yawn and exhibited no interest in the memorial. It was only a patriotic niche of the public that cared.
But then, how could this be much of a surprise when the response from our "fellow" vet groups (the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, etc) was officially no better?
In essence, they rebuffed us and turned away in much the same manner as the "couldn't care less" public. Yes, their experience of war and combat had been sharply different from ours in Vietnam but didn't we all answer the same call from the same nation?
And then, there were the flagship unions (to whom so many veterans of Vietnam were paying dues) who were no better. They, too, didn't seem to want to dirty their hands with us.
So, a rustle of underlying disdain was still a shaping force in the culture (even among those who had served and fought in the past) and still able to darken Vietnam vets as a breed of moral degenerate. To many of them, our service was a scarlet letter, a blot of shame.
Yet, a thin but growing mood of reconciliation had begun to take hold and show itself before the first bucket of excavated earth had been piled up and hauled away by an Oregon National Guard unit. But there was no broad welling up of support from Oregonians.
Thanks to the timely urging of VVOMF supporter Jack Wilmeth, ONG Gen. Richard Miller got on board and the Guard came to donate more than $50,000 worth of excavation work before handing off the Memorial project to the Associated General Contractors of Oregon.
But had Clayton not secured a $100,000 loan as the VVOMF flirted with bankruptcy, then perhaps AGC, the Fred Meyer Charitable Trust, the Guard, and later donors (like Joe Benda of Coors) would have lacked the reassurance they needed to then do what they did.
There were so many turning points and tipping points, so many points of uncertainty, impasse, and fatigue lying in wait along the path of ascent the VVOMF had chosen in pursuit of a Living Memorial, points at which they could've quit (but never did). They kept the faith.
They forged ahead to build a unique and sacred place where those in need of healing might reflect and, thus, invite the repair of what was broken within them. And might, too, breathe back into being some of their own riches of spirit bled away by those mutilating years.
In that way, they might then reclaim a missing part of themselves yet there waiting to be found in the crucifying doubt and buried sorrow of what may burden and haunt them in a private hell.
Founder Jerry Pero, a Marine, has never tired of saying (a smile glowing on his face with his hand firmly in yours), "Welcome Home, Brother." Roger that, Jerry, and Semper Fi. Always Faithful.