|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Auburn, New York, Chapter 704 comprises only around 45 members. Yet, since the turn of the millennium, it has erected no less than four veterans memorials and assisted with a fifth—all honoring the fallen from surrounding Cayuga County.
In September, this energetic chapter completed its most ambitious project to date when its unusually comprehensive Cayuga County Vietnam Veterans Memorial was erected in the nearby town of Brutus. The multifaceted, $72,000 monument marks the culmination of 15 years of research, design, and fundraising
The Cayuga County Vietnam Veterans Memorial is dedicated to remembering the service and sacrifices of the area’s Vietnam veterans and their families, and to teaching future generations about the Vietnam War. It also serves as testament to the enduring resolve of Chapter 704 to see the project through.
“It’s almost like a living memorial,” said Nick Valenti, Central District Director of VVA’s New York State Council, and a 25-year Chapter 704 member, “because we will be adding names as people become aware that their loved ones may have died because they contracted some diseases because of Agent Orange or because of PTSD and suicide.”
The center panel of the 30,000-pound black granite memorial features a map of Vietnam, including the locations where Cayuga County service members lost their lives. Another panel identifies the 29 local servicemen killed in Vietnam, and includes a laser-etched photo of each. The memorial’s rear panels honor those who have died since the end of the war from the lingering effects of the conflict. And there’s a history of America’s military involvement in Vietnam.
Designed by Chapter 704 in conjunction with Barnett Memorials of Auburn, other panels contain etched images of military equipment used in the war and scenes of troops performing various roles during the conflict.
Chapter 704’s history with memorials goes back to 1999, when chapter members helped bring the traveling Wall That Heals to Cayuga County. Realizing then that the area hadn’t recognized women veterans, the chapter built a monument for them in 2000. In 2003 came a memorial to 135 Cayuga County men who died in World War I, followed in 2005 by a memorial to the 267 lost in World War II. The chapter also conducted research for Cayuga County’s Korean Conflict Memorial, erected in 2006.
“We did a lot of learning from 1999 to 2005, and that’s when we formulated that we wanted a 501(c)(3) for fundraising,” recalled Valenti, who served with the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines aboard the U.S.S. Tripoli, 1969-70. “We said, ‘Look, we’ve got to design something that will honor our dead and recognize those who returned and later died because of their service.’ In order to do that, we wanted to tell a story. And we wanted to use it as a learning tool for our grandchildren.”
Despite all of Chapter 704’s experience in fundraising and navigating the bureaucratic hurdles of creating a memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial proved its most challenging and longest project to date, with numerous disappointments along the way. As fundraising stalled, the chapter reached out to other veterans organizations in Cayuga County and beyond for support and advertised in newspapers and on radio and TV. With its nonprofit status offering the added incentive of tax-deductible donations, Chapter 704 ultimately received more than 450 private gifts, ranging from $1 to $2,000, to build the memorial.
“We’re stubborn,” said Valenti, a former president and vice president of Chapter 704. “We get calls from chapters in other states wondering how we did it. It’s just tenacity. You have to believe in what you do. And you have to understand that this isn’t for us—it’s for our children to understand, so they don’t make the same mistakes we made, and at the same time to honor those who came before them.”
Chapter 704 experienced great difficulty in finding a location for the memorial before approaching the town of Brutus, just a few minutes north of Auburn. Brutus had received state development funding for its historic Centerport Aqueduct Park and welcomed the memorial with open arms. There also was some competitiveness with other area veterans organizations but, once they sat down with Chapter 704 members to discuss the project, they became some of its biggest supporters.
“It is something you have to work at and develop a relationship with people,” Valenti explained, “so you can actually accomplish what it is you want to accomplish in a cooperative, group manner.”
On a rainy Thursday morning last September, around fifty people, including members of Dryden, New York, Chapter 377, gathered to watch monument workers, crane operators, and trucking personnel unload, assemble, and anchor the Cayuga County Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“It was extremely moving,” Valenti said. “And it was mixed emotions. We were glad it was done, and then we were sad because of what we actually were depicting to the community.”
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