Build it, for us all

Feb 9, 2000 at 12:00 am

Three or four years ago, a college sophomore came to my class dressed for a job interview, looking sophisticated and grown-up. We were discussing Vietnam as America’s first TV war, in which, via film, we got to see the daily battles over dinner, with Walter Cronkite.

Her mother told her about that, she said brightly, then asked, "Was Vietnam before or after World War II?" No, she wasn’t stupid; she was a solid "B" student. But for her, it was a long time ago, before she was born, even.

So I was a little startled when last fall, another student told me, with evident pride, that her father had worked for years to make a Michigan Vietnam Memorial a reality. What surprised me even more was realizing this was a good idea.

For millions, after all, Vietnam isn’t over, has never been over. That, by the way, includes some of the first girl’s classmates who are younger, even than she.

There is one whose father drinks too much and smokes grass, usually with his Army buddies, and another whose Vietnam vet dad watches Saving Private Ryan.

Every night.

There were hundreds of thousands of others whose lives were changed forever because they refused to go, and went instead to Canada or Sweden or underground or to jail, losing years out of their lives. Many were estranged from their families, some forever.

When our part in the fighting ended in 1973, and everything we had fought for ended in 1975, it left this nation damaged as never before. Though far bloodier, the Civil War was about something and settled something. Vietnam was for nothing. As the years went by and the facts oozed to the surface, even the hardest-line hawks eventually saw how much our role had been what Neil Sheehan called a bright shining lie.

Yet it affected all of us, which is why Mike Sand, a high school teacher from Fraser, has dedicated himself for years to raising the funds to build a Michigan’s Vietnam monument in Lansing. I confess when I first heard about his effort, I rolled my eyes.

Don’t they already have the wall in Washington? What about the portable wall they move around the country? Monroe has a memorial on Dixie Highway right off I-75. What else do we need? There will be an outpouring of stories this spring, a quarter-century after Saigon fell, ending our longest, most utterly useless war.

Do we really need another reminder?

Damn right we do. "Michigan suffered proportionally worse than any other state during the Vietnam War," Sand told me. No fewer than 161,000 men – and a few women – actually served in ‘Nam. I wasn’t one; a student deferment and a good draft number saved me from any hard choice. Interestingly, Sand, who volunteered for the Air Force to avoid the draft, wasn’t himself "in country" either, not exactly.

He spent a year in Thailand as an airplane mechanic, patching up planes shot at over the war zone, and occasionally picking pieces of people out of them. He transferred back stateside after that, rejoined his wife, became a teacher, had five great kids.

For years, he wanted to put it behind him too, till he visited a Civil War battlefield covered with impressive monuments to single regiments.

Vietnam involved far more people, he knew; after a little research, he discovered that Michigan had suffered, by comparison, more than perhaps any other state.

"Look at the numbers," he told me, in a basement office where he has complied meticulous records. Overall, more than 400,000 Michigan men served in uniform during the war. Of those who actually wound up in Vietnam, 2,649 never came home.

That’s a lot more than were killed on the Titanic. They included two kids in my high school class; middle-aged men, teenage boys and a nurse from Hamtramck, Diane Orlowski. Suddenly, I realized the outrage was not so much that they didn’t have a monument ... but that we didn’t have one.

For all of us. Anyone who looks down at the veterans of that terrible war are terribly wrong. Yes, the war was made by idiot and criminal politicians, and their ranking Eichmann, Robert McNamara. But the thousands of blue-collar kids, most of whom had to go, thought they were doing their duty. They believed what their leaders told them.

The lives that were stolen deserve to be honored. Thanks to ordinary decent people like Sand, this may soon happen, at least a quarter century too late.

Years of lobbying finally got them an acre, near the Capitol; they have a design, and have raised all but a final $600,000 or so of the $2.6 million they need.

The plans are stunning. The monument will be set within a large circle surrounded by 49 lights, for the other states. Inside will be an 8-foot-long curved steel beam, anchored at each end, "representing tension in strength," with the names of all the Michiganders killed or missing engraved on panels. Past that will be an illuminated glass walk.

Those who wish can "buy" a brick on the memorial pathway, with a vet’s name.

We have diplomatic relations with Vietnam now. Our war with them ended long ago, and we sell them Coca-Cola. We need to finish it with ourselves, and make sure we remember never to forget. To help, call the monument project, toll-free, at 800-492-2649, or write to 611 W. Ottawa, Lansing 48913.