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Updated: Tuesday, 06 Nov 2012, 6:26 PM CST
Published : Tuesday, 06 Nov 2012, 6:09 PM CST
BASTROP (KXAN) - The Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument is passing a big milestone this week. Duke Sundt, the New Mexican sculptor chosen to create the monument, is in Bastrop overseeing the casting process for the giant piece.
Sundt never served in Vietnam, himself, but he is painfully aware of the war’s tragedy.
“I had a lot of friends that went over,” he said, “classmates, and several of them didn't come back. I won't forget them. That's one reason I do these. I do a lot of western, Americana, cowboys, cattle more modern-era type stuff. But I've done a number of war monuments and memorials and it's the way I figure the good Lord meant for me to serve.”
Indeed, the sculptor could well have been in Vietnam during the war, except for the advice of his older brother, a West Point graduate who served there as an officer.
“My brother was an FO (forward observer) with the 1st Cavalry Division when they went in and I was a senior in high school wondering what I was going to do. And he sent me a Christmas card and he said, 'Merry Christmas, Duke. Keep your 'blank' in school; you don't need any part of this.' And that's the day I decided to go to college.”
Robert Floyd, a lobbyist for a law firm at the Capitol, did serve in Vietnam. A luck of the draw placed him in the relative safety of an established base, working as a clerk-typist. But Floyd, the chair of the committee that is coordinating the monument creation and installation, is also achingly familiar with the cost of the conflict.
“A good friend of mine,” he said, “was on the USS Super Carrier Forrestal when they had the horrible accident when a missile was accidentally triggered. It sailed across the deck and hit a plane that was ready to take off that had a 1000-pound bomb on it.
“This good buddy of mine, Don Pederson, his job was to run to a disaster with a fire hose and the hose hung up and the chief bosun's mate was hollering at him to follow him and the chief had a little fire extinguisher.
“Don had to turn around and untangle the hose and when he turned back around the bomb went off and the chief turned into a pink mist and Don was blown off the ship.
“He climbed back out and there was a pilot rolling around on fire and he grabbed an extinguisher and doused him out. Actually, that was John McCain. And I live on Don Pederson's ranch today.”
It was Floyd who, back in 2003, first came up with the idea of a Vietnam veterans' monument on the Capitol grounds.
“It was near the end of the legislative session,” he said, “and I walked by a monument that I had not paid a lot of attention to and it was a very dignified monument to the Korean veterans. And I just kind of had that epiphany or whatever that there ought to be one for Vietnam veterans.”
Two years later, the Legislature unanimously authorized the project and Sundt got the green light to go to work.
But Vietnam being Vietnam, it wouldn’t be long before the project would find its way into controversy. The original plan to include a South Vietnamese soldier in the piece ran into opposition and was dropped.
“Last year,” Sundt said, “they asked me to come to a committee meeting and they said, 'We've decided to make this just an Asian-American because they wanted to do just Texans,' and could I do that?
“I said, 'Oh, I can do it but under protest,’ because I knew it would hurt a lot of feelings and by then I'd got to know quite a few Asian-American Texans.
“But, you know, they're the boss and I could make that change and we have. And, you know, I've got mixed feelings about it myself, but I know it's a lot of controversy now.
“We opened a can of worms and my oldest brother who is my biggest critic of all, the one who was a Vietnam vet, he fought with a lot of the Vietnamese then. He really liked that idea. I think he's still mad at me for agreeing to do this.
”But, you know, I didn't intend for this make enemies; I wanted to make friends.”
Floyd feels Sundt’s pain.
“The idea was,” he said, “this is for Texas; these are Texas veterans who served. This is not about the war directly; this is not about the politics of the war. This is to recognize those Texas veterans who served their country in Vietnam and did so as courageously and honorably as the GIs in World War II and our guys did in Korea.
“I guess I was naive to think that I could keep the politics out of a very political war, but we have tried to keep the focus on the veterans and the veterans who served because there are lots of opinions.
“I mean, we were protested when we went over there, protested when we came back and then there are some people that would like to protest now.
“But there was a lot of thought that went into it and that's why we've tried to keep the focus on those who served, the reasons they served and not on the politics of the war."
In the end, the committee chair believes, what matters most is to reflect the bond that held Vietnam veterans together during and after the war.
“Whether we were drafted or whether we volunteered,” he said, “we were all thrown together over there to watch each other's back. And it didn't make any difference what the color was; it was about watching your fellow countrymen and your fellow soldier's back.
“A lot of people get focused on the big, big picture, on the big policy issues. But when you're over there and especially when you're over there in combat, you're trying to stay alive and you're trying to keep your buddies alive and at the same time, accomplish your mission and do what's expected of you.”
The monument is scheduled to be installed at the Capitol in the fall of 2013. It will be the first such piece there to incorporate digital technology.
Visitors will be able to use their mobile devices to learn about the war and to watch video interviews with veterans.
“Sure it's going to be great to have this monument over here,” Floyd said, “but it's also important to have the stories for educational purposes that school groups and others can learn about the war, about the sacrifices of the Texans who went, as well as about the sacrifices of the Vietnamese who we fought for in the South.”
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