Vietnam vets struggle to build Detroit memorial

Mayor Duggan: meet these vets

Years ago, a bunch of local Vietnam-era veterans decided that, from then on, they didn’t want anyone who served in our armed forces to suffer what they’d gone through.

Namely, being reviled or forgotten when they got home. They founded a group that became nationally famous in their circles: Vietnam Veterans of America, Detroit Chapter 9.

They managed to get the abandoned old Greenfield’s Restaurant on Woodward Avenue. They cleaned it up, and turned it into a place for veterans. Actually, all veterans. 

They had a motto, says Mike Sand, who served in the U.S. Air Force during Vietnam, servicing planes and cleaning out cockpits in which pilots had been hit. (No, you don’t want to know.) 

That motto was “Never again shall one generation of veterans abandon another.” They reached out to old guys who had served in Korea and even World War II, and young ones coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

They revived a tradition of Veterans Day parades, which have grown bigger each November. 

And they had a dream: A beautiful memorial park that would honor the nation’s history, the veterans of all wars, and Detroit’s legacy as America’s arsenal of democracy. 

The city and at least one mayor hinted they could have the vacant lot next to their building. So they cleaned it up, got rid of the trash and the tires, condoms, and needles.

Paul Palazzolo, who was in ‘Nam for the worst two years of the war, (1967-69) chased off the junkies and the hookers. They were smart to run; he earned a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars, in part for blowing up a bunker while carrying a dying man.

The vets put up a flagpole and did some landscaping. They hired an architect and started raising money. Then Kwame Kilpatrick double-crossed them, and gave the lot to some of his cronies to park cars on during sporting events.

But the vets didn’t give up. They developed a new plan for a scaled-down memorial that would greatly enhance the now largely empty Gabriel Richard Park, near the Belle Isle Bridge.

The city was receptive; the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, less so. Nevertheless, the city signed off.

Last November, “Big Al” Opra, a U.S. Marine vet who is president of the nonprofit veterans park organization, got a letter from the director of Detroit’s Recreation Department: 

“After reviewing your organization’s proposal for the Veterans Memorial Park of Detroit to be located at Gabriel Richard Park, I offer the Detroit Recreation Department’s approval and support,” Alicia Minter told them.

The veterans got more good news, too. As it turned out, Mike Ilitch needed the Vietnam Veterans headquarters for his new hockey palace. They were able to work a deal to sell it to him for $2.5 million — and to keep using the building for more than two years. They figured that would be enough for them to get a new building and have some left over for the park.

Architectural firm Merz & Associates calculated they could do the whole project, from pylons depicting each conflict to the necessary work preparing the land, for just under $2 million.

“But we also are going to establish a maintenance fund of $500,000 to care for the monument in perpetuity, said president Charles Merz, a big, bluff man with seemingly near-infinite patience.

“We aren’t trying to get anything from the city. We want to give them a park, a gathering, memorial, and entertainment place,” he told me when I met the veterans for lunch last week.

“This isn’t some militaristic thing. This is intended to describe the history of our country through its military conflicts, their outcomes, and their cost in patriotic lives. But in a greater sense, it’s the story of all service by ordinary men and women.”  

“They could also learn something about Detroit’s role as the arsenal of democracy,” Palazzolo said. Officially, his service left him with a 75 percent disability. Unofficially, I wouldn’t go up against him with any two other guys on my side. 

Last November, after they got Minter’s letter, they thought they’d made a breakthrough. But then nothing happened. And they couldn’t get Minter to respond to emails or return their calls. (She wouldn’t return mine either.)

The vets say they finally managed to get her on the phone in March, when she told them, flatly, “It isn’t happening.”

According to the veterans, Minter said they should build their memorial in Owen Park, a bleak, weed-choked, eight-acre lot in a mostly deserted section of town farther east.

Parking there is nonexistent, and there’s a collapsed sewer. The veterans studied the site and concluded it was impossible.

Nobody would come there, nobody would see it from the road, and they’d be building a monument for the benefit of vandals. Sand, who has heart issues, recently retired after a long career as a high school teacher. 

A former head of Chapter 9, Sand fought for years to get a Vietnam War memorial built in Lansing. He knows first-hand how frustrating dealing with government bureaucracy can be, and how little kids know about our country’s history.

He knows something else too: “We don’t have that much time left.” That’s true of his Vietnam-era buddies, and even truer of the men and women who served in earlier conflicts.

What I think is that they should take their case directly to Mayor Mike Duggan. The mayor knows very well there are tens of thousands of veterans in the area, maybe more.

He knows they served the country and deserve honor and respect, and he also knows that most of them vote.

In a city filled with tens of thousands of structures that need to be torn down, they want to pay for and build something to honor our history and those who paid an enormous price.

The mayor ought to meet with them, and see if there’s a way to bypass the bureaucracy and make it happen.

Neither they, nor we, deserve any less. 


Vote Yes on Proposal 1

Even if there isn’t a political race worthy of your time, there’s still a good reason to vote on Aug. 5: Proposal 1, a statewide referendum that would guarantee communities a more stable share of revenue.

Unfortunately, the proposal is incomprehensible, atrociously written, and looks at first glance like one more business tax cut at the expense of citizens. Granted, the chambers of commerce do like this proposal.

But progressives like State Sens. Rebekah Warren and Gretchen Whitmer like it even more. What it actually does is abolish the misnamed “personal property tax” for many businesses. This was actually a tax on equipment and furniture, and had the bad effect of sometimes preventing businesses from expanding or getting the new equipment needed to be competitive. Much of that money went to local communities, but the amount they get varies wildly, making it hard to plan.

Proposal 1 would eliminate that tax, and replace the money going to the cities with a share of the state use tax on things like rental cars and hotel rooms, a more stable source of funding. Small businesses would be better off, and perhaps be able to create more jobs. The state would get its money back by allowing $600 million in old business tax credits to expire. 

Who opposes Proposal 1?  Nobody. Except the wording is so bad, people may well vote against it because they can’t understand it, which isn’t the first time that’s happened. 

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