by Aaron Layman
From Navy operations in the Pacific to Marines trudging through the jungles of Vietnam, the Vinton War Memorial’s grounds were alive this past Tuesday with the stories of countless soldiers. That’s when over 600 veterans, family and friends gathered for the dedication of the Vinton/Roanoke County Veterans Monument, along with local politicians and active service personnel.
The monument, the culmination of six-plus years of labor and fundraising (approximately $300,000) by the Vinton Vision Committee, is an octagonal structure centered around a handcrafted bronze flag, standing over a fountain that runs over boulders and smooth river stones. Seals of each military branch decorate the crossbars atop white columns while a poem in honor of those currently serving and those who have served rings the inner part of the octagon. Names of the 200 fallen soldiers from Vinton and Roanoke County reside on plaques on both the fountain and columns.
The “high ground” theme comes from a veteran friend of monument artist Larry Bechtel telling him that soldiers always look for the high ground in the midst of battle. Book ended by patriotic music from the Smith Mountain Brass and singing by Angela Jasper, the ceremony hosted a number of speakers who focused on the importance of the monument, honoring those who serve and have served.
Vinton Vision Committee Chairperson Bootie Chewning started off the ceremony by recounting the history of the project, which had its origins in a lunch meeting with Town Councilwoman Carolyn Fidler and Vinton Mayor Brad Grose. Thanking all of the committee members individually and pointing out how they “hung in there” regardless of naysayers, Chewning also took time to thank general contractor John Kirtley for his diligent work, as the construction took place “through all seasons.”
Capt. Dan Kelly of the Navy’s Fleet Service Command, a graduate of William Byrd High School, spoke on changes within the military over the 26 years he has been in the service. Noting the recent appointment of the first female commander of a US Navy Carrier Strike Group, he said that many barriers have been surmounted. Information technology, said Kelly, has revolutionized how the military branches organize, train and fight. Taking a more personal turn, he said one of the reasons that the American military has been the strongest throughout the years is the support of family: “You form bedrock foundations . . . and set standards for our young people.”
Keynote speaker Brigadier General Alan Farrell, a Ph. D French professor at VMI who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, gave a stirring address on memory and the military. He moved deftly from references to the French legend of military leaders losing the “high ground” to speaking about the American military searching out a moral higher ground. “Memory, if it have any validity at all, must be complete,” said Farrell as he contrasted military scandals like the Abu Ghraib prison with the tale of a compassionate American soldier comforting a surrendering Iraqi right after the end of the first Gulf war. The latter, he said, is “the American soldier we raise this monument to.”
The past and its effect on those living in the present was also on the minds of those in the audience. Air Force Capt. James Edwin Ray, who assisted in the research for the Library of Virginia, said displaying the names of fallen veterans allowed for a closer connection to the public that come to see the monument on Washington Avenue: “[It’s] why I think it’s so important to list all the names. Each one has their own story.” The stories of those who survived also got their say after the ceremony when Monty Williams of Video Ventures donated his time to recording veterans’ stories for an oral history project.
Retired First Sergeant Marine Marty Bradshaw said that the monument was “very chilling” in its high ground theme, echoing his own time in the military – his company’s job in Vietnam was mainly to “take the hill.” As soldiers and sailors exchanged war tales after the ceremony, the final words of Farrell’s keynote speech seemed to ring true: “It’s the memory that endures, more than anything.”