SACRAMENTO — B. T. Collins observes a series of private anniversaries that never fail to stir his Irish tears through an afternoon of VO and soda. With a twist.
" La guerre, la guerre ," goes his whispered toast that explains a military preoccupation. " Toujours la guerre ."
The war, the war. Always the war. So Collins commemorated last Monday as the day he almost died leading 88 GIs up some nameless ridge near An Khe. In three days, 55 of his men stopped living before they had stopped growing. A bloody awful way, he noted, to celebrate Ho Chi Minh's birthday.
Jan. 27. On this day in 1966, his company commander was wounded; he died a quadriplegic many years later.
May 19. Sgt. Eugene Pickett, the old sweat, the classic noncom who called his soldiers "chillun," was shot through the eye.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 10, 1986 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 16 Column 2 View Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
In a recent story concerning a memorial to Californians killed in the Vietnam War, B. T. Collins of Sacramento, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, was described as leading a unit of the 1st Cavalry Division during a 1966 engagement in which 55 GIs were killed. Collins said that he was a forward observer with the unit, not its commander and that the casualty toll was 55 killed and wounded.
June 20, 1967. That's when the Vietnam War cost Green Beret B. T. Collins an arm and a leg.
Dec. 22. Here's to the blue-eyed black Irishman's first step on his artificial leg.
Now he has a fresher, more local anniversary to mark.
Today, despite Collins' work and dedication, another Memorial Day will pass without a state memorial to Californians killed or missing in the Vietnam War.
A bill creating such a memorial was signed into law . . . but that was more than two years ago. A design was accepted and a $2-million budget established . . . a year ago. Funds have been raised . . . but of $200,000 collected, expenses have eaten all but $20,000. A temporary redwood marker shows where the memorial will stand on the Capitol grounds . . . but vandals have twice knocked it over.
Vietnam memorials have been raised by eight states from New York to Arizona. A dozen more are in motion. Yet California--a state that sent more men (334,000), lost more men (5,814) and had more men (28) awarded Medals of Honor--is without its place of homage.
Collins, 45, a member of the nine-person California Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission and former chief of staff to Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., chooses to take it personally.
"Because it is my fault," he said. "Because I was the one (member) who was most vocal. The most famous is Leo (Thorsness), who was a prisoner for six years, but I'm the most vocal. But I haven't done enough publicity. I haven't done the job because I haven't had the time.
"The problem, and this is what scares me, is that the (current) good feeling about Vietnam veterans is going to evaporate. Look at me. I'm 45. The war was over 13 years ago. Soon, everybody's going to forget it.
"What we (commission members) have got to do is get off our butts with every newspaper, get the word out, do it over and over. . . ."
Collins, those close to the issue say, is too hard on himself. For as an investment banker with Kidder, Peabody & Co. and a former director of the California Conservation Corps, he never fails to include the memorial in the two dozen speeches he makes each month. There was his cocktail dance for the Friends and Enemies of B. T. Collins at the Capitol Plaza Hall. It raised $26,000.
Self-deprecation, they add, is a trademark of Brien Thomas Collins.
In truth, members of the commission say, any blame for delays can be shared. For one thing, when the memorial bill was signed, there was no allowance for staff. It was ruled that California's memorial, unlike those in some other states, would not be built by public funds.
Then came a problem created by the design phase of the memorial, explained commission vice chairman Thorsness, a former POW in Hanoi and a Medal of Honor winner.
"When we established the design competition, we did not limit in any way what the cost would be," Thorsness said. "I don't know what it cost for the New York or New Mexico or Arizona memorials, but I get the impression that the cost of ours is significantly more.
"To crank up a $2-million fund-raising effort takes a lot of time and work." Linda McClenahan, who served in Vietnam with the 1st Signal Brigade, chairs the commission. She is a telecommunications analyst with Bechtel Power Corp. in San Francisco. She knows that members' full-time jobs, no matter how generous their employers, have long restricted their availability for commission work.
Even when there was time, most members were inexperienced in writing, submitting and overseeing approval for the state contracts required to plan and raise the memorial.
"There was a point when I took a week's leave of absence and it took all that time to simply get an initial contract and all attachments through the approval process," she said. "It was incredibly time-consuming and very frustrating."
Despite contributions totaling $30,000 from Coors, TRW, Lockheed and Litton Industries, corporations have been slow in responding.
"We're not doing too well on corporate donations," McClenahan acknowledged, "but my comment from the beginning was that I hope the citizens of California build this memorial, not its corporations."