|Vietnam Veterans of America|
New Memorial Rises Near Omaha
During the Vietnam War, according to the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, U.S. forces flew nearly 12,000 helicopters in country. Of these, some 7,000 were Bell Helicopter Hueys. Some 3,500 were lost in combat or accidents; 1,151 Huey pilots and 1,231 crewmembers died in Vietnam.
That’s a grim recitation of facts. Still, it helps explain why a restored UH-1 Huey, the workhorse of the war, is central to the design of the Nebraska Vietnam Veterans Memorial that is taking shape in a suburb of Omaha. Inside the medevac chopper bronze statues of crewmembers will reach out to bronze statues of troops awaiting rescue in the field — a strikingly vivid scenario that, as the Memorial puts it, helps “visitors envision the trauma and humanity of the war.”
Chapter 279 of Omaha has been the driving force in bringing the Nebraska Vietnam Veterans Memorial to its present stage, with ground broken and construction underway. The chapter cut its teeth, so to speak, by raising funds to erect a monument to Vietnam War veterans in 2018 at the Omaha National Cemetery, which itself was dedicated in 2016, one of the country’s newest military burial sites.
The Nebraska Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is a short drive from the National Cemetery, scales up Chapter 279’s original plans, and has proven to be a huge undertaking. It’s been a dream that Nebraska State Council President Thomas W. Brown, a founding member of Chapter 279 who also serves as president of the Nebraska Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation (NVVMF), has nursed for years, encouraged by the chapter’s members.
“The idea came about in October of 2017,” Brown said. “A group of us Vietnam veterans were sitting around talking, and we decided that we wanted a memorial that was devoted to Vietnam veterans only. There are so many memorials all around the state, and of course other states, dedicated to veterans of many wars. We went to our chapter officers and members and started talking about how to do something different.”
Early in 2019, Brown, who served as a Marine in Vietnam from May 1966 to July 1968, took matters a step further by organizing a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit and establishing a board of directors. Later, an honorary board committee was formed. Its members include two noted Vietnam War veterans: former U.S. Secretary of Defense and U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, who was born in North Platte and graduated from the University of Nebraska, and former Nebraska Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, a former Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor recipient.
“The next logical step was to start fundraising,” Brown said. “We got a capital campaign going in the summer of 2019, and it was moving along fine until—well, you know, the pandemic hit. That really slowed us down, but we continued to call on people and make connections. When things opened up a little in 2021, we resumed, and started to get more donations.”
So far, the NVVMF has raised about $3 million, Brown said, out of a total of about $5.4 million needed to complete the construction of the memorial. A grant application for $2 million is pending with the state of Nebraska. If successful, it will almost close the gap.
Finding a Site
At the same time, Brown said, they needed to find a place for the memorial, a task that took legwork and homework. They eventually found it in the Omaha suburb of Papillion on land adjoining an amphitheater, a nature park, and a high school. The site has spaces for public programming such as concerts, as well as easy access for visitors.
“The Memorial board looked at a couple of sites after the initial design had been completed, but in each case it would have compromised the design,” said Papillion Mayor David Black. “They needed more space, and they found us here in Papillion. We’re friendly to veterans, and it’s the norm here to celebrate and honor their contributions. We sat down with the board and our parks department and looked at available land. I was thinking at first that it might be private land that a developer would donate, but as we started looking around, we found a better option.”
That option lay within a seven-acre tract of city-owned land with high ground that overlooks a lake. The two-acre memorial site stands on that high point, which has good drainage and commanding views.
“Anyone coming to the amphitheater or natural area will look up the hill, see the memorial, and may say, ‘Hey, let’s go up there and see what that is,’ ” Black said. “That way, if they don’t know, they’ll be exposed to the history of the Vietnam War and the Nebraskans who served in it.”
Along with the donation of the land, which is three miles due east of the Omaha National Cemetery, the city of Papillion has provided $200,000 for construction and assumed responsibility for routine maintenance of the site, which is spacious enough to accommodate a design put together by a local builder, Prochaska & Associates.
“Don Prochaska, the owner, who has since died, was a good friend of mine,” said Chapter 279 member and NVVMF secretary/treasurer George Abbott. “When Tom Brown first came up with the idea for the Memorial in 2017, I talked to Don, who said he’d be glad to help. He put an associate of his, Paul Cocolas, in charge of the project, and Paul started to put together a design.
“We said that we wanted our Memorial to look different from all the other monuments around the country. We wanted it to be a little confusing to walk through, just like Vietnam was, with lots of features, and then end with a clear view of the rescue helicopter.” Brown, Abbott, and their colleagues tweaked the design, and NVVMF greenlighted the project.
That design tells a story. Entering the brick plaza, the visitor will encounter a black granite wall. The north-facing side of that Wall of Honor, reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, will list the names of the 396 Nebraskans who died in the war. The south-facing side will contain 3×4-inch tiles with photographs of the fallen, along with their names, branch of service, and date of death.
There and elsewhere QR codes will tell their stories, including that of U.S Marine Lance Cpl. Miguel Keith, who died on May 8, 1970, and received a postumous Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry.
Moving beyond that structure will stand, in a somewhat random pattern, eleven granite obelisks, one for each of the years from 1965 to 1975. The obelisks will carry text and images that record key events in both American history and the history of the war. The obelisks, benches, and other structures, Brown says, will add up to a total of more than a million pounds of granite, graced with native landscaping that leads out onto the tableau of the medevac Huey at the south end of the plaza.
Support from the Community
Central to connecting NVVMF to another important ally was its vice president, Lisa Cuevas-Jorgensen, who also serves as senior director for community initiatives at nearby Bellevue University. Primarily an online institution located just east of Papillion and alongside Offutt Air Force Base, Bellevue was founded in 1966 to offer courses to active-duty and retired military personnel and help them and their families transition into civilian life.
“One of our now-retired vice presidents heard about Chapter 279’s projects and thought this would be a great thing to be involved with,” Cuevas-Jorgensen said. “Our president, Mary Hawkins, agreed, and so we’ve put our support behind the memorial in a number of ways.”
One was to steer Tom Brown and George Abbott to Mayor David Black’s office in Papillion in the first place. Another has been to lend NVVMF the support of Bellevue’s marketing, graphic design, web development, and computer resources. One result is an impressive website that’s housed on the university’s servers.
Cuevas-Jorgensen feels a special responsibility to the 37,000 Vietnam War veterans in Nebraska, as well as those who died in the war, both as part of Bellevue’s mission and to honor an uncle who came home from Vietnam with PTSD and committed suicide in May 1976.
“But it’s not only personal,” she said. “Our president, our board of directors, everyone here is committed to the Memorial.”
And as for that Huey? It turned up as a matter of happenstance. “We knew that we wanted to have a helicopter,” Brown said. “We weren’t sure how to find one, though, and so I sent a request to The Veteran. The president of the Vermont VVA State Council read it, and said that he could get hold of a Huey. He did, and believe it or not, we got it moved from Bennington, Vermont, to Bennington, Nebraska. It took two years to get that done, since we had to find a place to put it and the money to have it shipped.Then we had to have it restored.”
That problem was solved much closer to home, for just across the Missouri River from Omaha a community college in Council Bluffs, Iowa, has an aviation mechanics training program. Some of its students volunteered to refurbish the Huey with an eye to delivering the completed project this summer.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the Nebraska Vietnam Veterans Memorial took place on Vietnam Veterans Day, March 29, 2022, with 20 VVA 279 members, including VVA Board Member Dottie Barickman, on hand to greet visitors, guide traffic, and distribute fundraising literature.
Allowing for unforeseen delays, bad weather, and other considerations, the plan is now to do a soft opening in the summer of 2023, in the hope that the memorial will be completed by the end of next year.
For more information about the memorial and opportunities to donate, contact the Nebraska Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation at 7914 W. Dodge Rd. #446, Omaha, NE 68114. Visit the website at www.nvvmf.orgu
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