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October 23, 2006

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Dedication Review
By Paul Mitchell

The Vietnam War Memorial Dedication, in Pierre, September 15 and 16, was an awesome display of planning, patriotism, entertainment and 'welcoming home' made possible by an enormous volunteer effort from Pierre, corporate sponsors, and over 32,000 men and women who put on the uniform during that time. South Dakota’s effort was the first in the United States, and in our case, involved every community in the State. Over 28,000 South Dakotan's served in the military, in one form or another, in the Vietnam era, ranging from 1962-1975. The Memorial dedication was in honor of those 28-thousand South Dakotans who answered the call to serve their country during a time that tested our ideas of patriotism and duty. Statistically, 210 of our state's soldiers lost their lives in service to their country. Realistically, this weekend, all those who served in the military in this period of time, were 'welcomed home'.

From my personal point of view the entire experience was very tasteful and rewarding. Pierre can be proud of their involvement in what appeared to be an overwhelming, logistical and planning, endeavor. As I understand, many other states are now planning to follow our lead in officially welcoming home their respective patriots from that era. Riggs High School, Class of '65, was well represented in the Vietnam era, as nearly 25-percent of our class served in the military.

The whole memorial dedication experience was even more personal to me, since it took place on our 'home turf'. I just returned from a 4,000 mile odyssey, pulling the Harley behind the SUV, on my honeymoon. I thought the trip through WY, MT, ID, WA, CA. with rides at Kalispell, Ceouer De Alene, Olympic Rain Forest, Coastal Highway 101, and Lake Tahoe couldn't be beaten from a motorcycle riders point of view. I told Terry Shangreaux, after lunch in San Jose, we were going to Tahoe, then Reno, Salt Lake, Denver, then on to Pierre. He predicted a pretty awesome ending to our trip....that ending being a flag bearer in the Vietnam Memorial Parade. And awesome it was, but that was just the beginning.

You could feel the excitement, Thursday, on the drive from Rapid City to Pierre. RV's with American flags and POW/MIA flags were bumper-to-bumper on I-90, threaded with groups of motorcycles and citizens. Everybody was waving at each other. We all knew where we were going, and why. The spirit had been kindled several months earlier with Memorial publicity. These people were all going to Pierre to be 'welcomed home', and the emotions tied with that feeling were reaching the surface of what was to be a heart-warming reception after many years. The drive from Vivian to Rapid was adorned with flags in hay bails, every mile. The Missouri River Bridge had American Flags every few feet. When you settled into Pierre from the Bridge it was glaringly obvious that you were driving into an experience that would stay in your mind and heart forever.

We stayed with some folks, Terri, my new bride knows, on the Fort Pierre side, down by the river. They also hosted a family from Spearfish. Parking was impossible in Pierre. Shuttle Buses were running all over Central South Dakota. No room has been available in town for several months. People who were hosting a Vietnam Era Vet had big red signs in their front yard to that fact. The closest available motel room was Kadoka, 150 miles away from Pierre. Every possible campground space was taken. In Pierre, itself, the city streets were blocked off from Highland, by the Catholic Church, to about 5 blocks east of the Capital, on Capitol Avenue. You could park by the Rawlings State Library and by Riggs High School. Sioux Avenue was the closest you could get from the south. Euclid on the West.

The entire Capitol grounds were covered with welcoming tents and vendors. The Viet Nam Era vets who'd pre-registered were lined up at the huge welcoming tent to pick up their welcome packet and concert tickets. Each packet contained programs, license plate brackets, maps and a black cap that said, South Dakota Vietnam Veteran, on the crown. These caps became common sight throughout the weekend. Vet's received one free ticket to the concert venue and the opportunity to buy 10-more at a reduced retail price. Nobody (general public) could buy concert tickets until July 1, while Vets could purchase them in May. Every storefront said, Welcome Home Vets.

Friday night at Phil Troutner Hollister Field was amazing. How they got all those people in there is beyond me. Food and beer vendors were in the West end zone, and a hundred Porta-Potties were lined up behind the South Stands. The attendance at PHS football games, in the 60's, might have been greater if the beer tents were set up, Ha Ha!   Red Willow Band, featuring local Chris Gage and Rapid's Kenny Putnam, on fiddle, preceded The Beach Boys. Red Willow was hot, from 1970 to about 1984. They're all still playing in one form or another. Chris and Kenny were backup band members for Roy Clark, at one time. Their mix of Blue Grass, Banjo's and fiddles definitely got the crowd rocking. The Beach Boys brought the house down, although, they had a group of young voices, one a Cowsill, to support the high notes. The evening was a cool experience. I've never seen more American Flags in one place, ever.

The parade staged on Pleasant Drive, about six blocks east and down a street from the Zesto around 8 am.  Many riders from Rapid City, Watertown and Sioux Falls left pre-dawn and rode to Pierre. Terri and I carried the Black Hills Chapter Harley Owner's Group flag. The initial color guard, was followed by riders from the SD Abate group. Then the four flags of the four State Harley Owner's Groups, four abreast, followed by about 2000 motorcycles. The Patriot Guard, requested to take up the rear of the motorcycle contingent. The Patriot Guard is a State-wide group of riders who make their appearance at funerals of military personnel, to make a wedge between the funeral participants and groups of people who appear at these solemn events to protest one thing or another.

The motorcycles were at the beginning of the 140-entry parade and actually preceded the parade by several minutes. They had us ride the parade route four abreast, all the way down Capitol Ave, past the Capitol Building, around the curve and on to what ever street is down by the elementary school. The parade route was 2 1/2 miles long. We flew through at 20 mph with the flags waving. The streets were lined with people the entire parade route. The applause could be heard above the roar of the engines. This display of bikes and flags was the official kick off. I for one, was moved, honored, proud and excited all at once. The reason for the bikes early arrival was two-fold; first, to make a patriotic statement and rev up the crowd, and secondly so we could actually get our bikes parked, and be shuttled down the parade route so we could see the parade, as well.

The parade had just about every high school band in the state, including, the Pierre Governors. SDSU, BHSU, NSU, and USD also brought their marching bands. All sorts of patriotic floats and different organizational and corporate floats all with the same message, "Welcome Home"! I was pleasantly surprised to see there wasn't one single political candidate, or representative float in the parade, I'm sure by design. Not even our Congressional contingent. This whole event was for Vietnam Era veterans, and that message rang loud and clear the entire weekend. This was one of the neatest parades I've ever seen, and I am a marching band nut and have been to a few. My idea of a great vacation would to be having center square seats at Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Rose Bowl Parade, in Pasadena, or the Orange Bowl Parade. This was a hot parade.

Many military units were represented, as well as different Native American Veteran's groups from our State Lakota Tribes. It was very impressive. Although, the event was for Vietnam Era vets, which includes me, I couldn't help but salute the groups representing actual combat units who served in the jungles of Vietnam, which I was not.  It's important to remember this event wasn't about the war in Vietnam, or any other political points of view regarding the past or present. It was all about South Dakota "Welcoming Home" this contingent of 60's and early 70's young people who answered their country's call. And it was done in very good taste.

Obviously, there were no protestors at this event, like there were when many of these youngsters came home, seemingly unwelcome. This was a belated "Welcome Home" and it was received by those deserving in a gala and appreciative way. There simply wasn't any room for anything else, emotion-wise, or from any political agenda. Wonderful!

Saturday night was cold at Hollister Field. It reminded me of some of the late October football games, when our boys from the Class of '65 were trying to have an undefeated football season. It was refreshing to see another sold out venue for Creedence Clearwater Revisited and the Steve Miller Band. I still had visions, though, of our hearty Green and White lined up in battle with the likes of Rapid City Central Cobblers and the Huron Tigers....or, the fleet footed tracksters  like George Amundson throwing the discus 200 plus feet, and Lee (Leap) Larscheid running the 100 meter hurdles in 14.1, still a state record after all these years.

Creedence was outstanding. Two of the original band members were on stage. Every single song they sang was a hit. Hollister Field has never seen this much excitement and there wasn't a square foot of available space. These bands set up on the North Side of the field in the parking lot behind the Joe Foss Building, and were using the offices as dressing rooms. We sat on the bleachers on the South Side. (Back in our day the stands were on the North where the Bandstand was for the concert). At each of these events you saw people you knew. There had to have been over 10,000 people on the field itself. The Beach Boys said they'd never seen anything like this.

The actual Memorial Dedication was a moving experience, as well. Many of you have seen the picture posted on the Internet. But you had to be there to get the full effect. All the parade bands staged themselves on the lawn across Broadway in front of the office building and did a pre-dedication concert of patriotic tunes. Then three Huey Helicopters flew over Capital Lake, in formation, with door gunners, in Vietnam Era garb. This was followed by several fixed wing Viet Nam Era aircraft, including B-52's. Finally, dipping out of the Southern Sky, like a monster on the hunt, dropped a B1-B Bomber from Ellsworth Air Force Base, damn near at lake top level, and blasted skyward over Riggs High. The ground shook. 30,000 people involuntarily stood up and cheered....it was a moving mili-second and the plane spoke with its roar, as if to say, because of you veterans and those like you, we're safe in America...."Welcome Home".

Then the microphone and PA system rang out with those all so familiar words, portrayed by Robin Williams......but, in Pierre spoken by Adrian Cronauer, in person.....Good Morning, Vietnam. The applause boomed. A surprise appearance by the popular musical group, Big and Rich, who flew in from NY especially for this one song, sang their hit song  ‘The 8th of November’, written for their friend Niles Harris, Deadwood, SD, representing his heroics on Nov 8, 1965, in Vietnam. Each service song was played by the bands, and members in the crowd from that service stood up to be recognized, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and even one fellow from the Merchant Marines.

South Dakota's three Congressional Medal of Honor recipients were honored, the two still living, MG Patrick Brady, from Phillip, and SP4 Mike Fitzmaurice, were in attendance. Col Leo Thorsness, the third recipient, is deceased. The Memorial was dedicated. The SD Vietnam War Memorial depicts a battle-weary foot soldier, bearing his rifle in one hand and dog tag of a fallen brother in the other outstretched hand. Laden with his regulation gear--his pack, helmet, canteen, and weapons, he also carries some personal reminders of the place he calls home and the people who anxiously await his return. A simple cross hangs near his dog tag, a battered watch encircles his wrist, and a knife from his father hangs ready for use.

The completed memorial stands over 7 feet tall and with its bronze coating, weighs over 400 pounds. It takes its place of honor next to the granite wall which was dedicated in 1986 and is engraved with the names of 210 South Dakotans declared killed or missing in action in the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War Memorial joins the Korean and World War II Memorials on the state Capitol grounds near the Flaming Fountain and Capitol Lake.

The event staff had drinking water stations all over town, a lost and found, alternative formats and listening devices, reserved parking for limited mobility and state-issued disability permits, reserved seating for those with limited mobility or wheelchairs, counselors available for veterans and their families, find a buddy locator service, and Memorial Logo's. In the dedication itself the Governor, Pierre's own Mike Rounds spoke giving a moving 'We Are American's' speech, a wreath was presented by the United States Army, 1st Cavalry, echo taps (very moving), South Dakota's Sioux Nation retrieved the Eagle Staff, Vietnam Warrior Song, Stars and Stripes forever by SD's University Bands, Adrian Cronauer and a finale of fireworks and the release of 28,000 balloons, each representing a South Dakotan who served during the Vietnam War, including 211 black balloons for those South Dakotans declared killed or missing in action.

I saw many displays of emotion, and buddy memories that weekend in Pierre. Here are a couple of quotes from the Memorial Dedication Program.

"For those of us who exercised our privilege to serve our country, I can honestly say we did it proudly and shared a common bond of patriotism that those who were unwilling to answer our country's call will never understand or appreciate." Dennis Foell, Pierre, SD

"I turned 18 in June 1969...I went to Vietnam on December 1st...the country was beautiful, with sand flats, rolling hills, mountains and swamps....coming home was another sad, lonely experience. No one seemed to care where you had been the past year. My favorite line seemed to be I was on "my senior class trip" in Southeast Asia. Larry Schuster, Eden, SD

"After serving a tour in Vietnam....I returned home to my mother's people...My uncle, who was also a veteran, called me to his side....and explained that the Sioux are a warrior society and that at one time young men were taught to be warriors....he said that I proved myself as a warrior because of my service in the Army and Vietnam....he gave me a prayer fan made of Bald Eagle feathers, which is a tradition unique to the Indian people. I have few times in my life been humbled as much and honored so. Pable Garcia, Lake Andes, SD.

Sunday morning, when the festivities were coming to and end we went down to Capitol Lake to get a close-up view of the Memorial since it was so crowded the day before. I knew it would happen soon or later, and this is where the whole experience 'took me over'. It was a drizzly day, chilly...we parked in the parking lot behind the Capitol Building. The barricades were down. There were a lot of cars so I knew other people wanted to see the statue, too.

When we got down by the lake we noticed two long lines had formed and a circle of people were around the memorial. One line was Vietnam Vets....the other was their designated photographer. They wanted a picture of themselves standing next to the 'soldier'. They were wearing their black caps given to them on Friday....South Dakota Vietnam Veteran. Some put their arm around the sculpture. Some held the outstretched hand that held the dog tags....some just touched....some took the same position and recognized the names of those on the wall who didn't come home....many wept. They could hold it no longer. The photographers, wives and children wept, as well. Their families let them have this moment with the statue and the memory, embraced them when they walked away. The crowd of people embraced them as well.  There was a divine and protective veil over the whole city of Pierre, September 15 and 16. Sunday morning, by Capitol Lake, was as real as anything I've ever seen in my entire life. And, "Welcome Home" said South Dakota....Welcome Home!

I cry as I write....these were our people, classmates. That's how it really was at the South Dakota Vietnam Memorial Dedication. We loaded up the truck and trailer, and gassed up at the Truck Stop, by the Ramkota. I bought a couple of coffees for the road, and the clerk waved at me. I thought she knew Terri. She kept waving.....and wouldn't take my money. This was a teenage girl. "No charge", she said. I said, "thanks." She replied, "No. Thank you, and Welcome Home," Amazing, absolutely amazing.

, October 2006  

See the Memorial website!

A video of the dedication events can be purchased from SD Public TV.

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Last modified: 06/19/13