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Vietnam War Memorial Gives Alliance Its Due

History: After disputes and delays, the statue of American and South Vietnamese soldiers will finally be installed in Westminster.

September 21, 2002|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A symbol of healing that itself became controversial is to be installed Monday in Westminster: a war memorial depicting two somber soldiers--one Vietnamese and one American--standing side by side.

The 15-foot bronze is the centerpiece of a $1-million memorial considered the first to honor both U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers. About 58,000 Americans and 300,000 South Vietnamese, the two sides allied against the communist North Vietnamese, died in the war.

"This is our answer to 'the Wall' on the East Coast," said Westminster City Councilman Frank Fry Jr., referring to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the nation's capital. Fry is a World War II veteran who proposed the Westminster memorial six years ago.

"This war memorial has been a long time coming," he said. "It is symbolic on many levels, but mainly [as a way] to unite the Vietnamese and American communities."

The 3-ton statue will be placed in the new, 1.4-acre Freedom Park, surrounded by a black-marble fountain and flags of the United States and the former South Vietnam.

Sculptor Tuan Nguyen also added a traditional memorial urn in which incense will be burned. A computerized kiosk will allow visitors to look up the names of U.S. and South Vietnamese casualties.

"I wanted this memorial to be an emotional experience," said Nguyen, 39, who took two years to finish the bronze. "It's a way to pay our respects and repay the soldiers who fought for our freedom."

The city commissioned the statue, provided the land and will maintain the park, which officials expect to be a natural draw for visitors to Little Saigon, the world's largest expatriate Vietnamese community. The statue, however, was financed with donations from the Vietnamese community.

The cost, among other issues, contributed to four years of bickering over the memorial. Many in the Vietnamese community objected as the price escalated, forcing donors to contribute more money.

The criticism continued over early designs that included only a U.S. flag or depicted the soldiers shaking hands on a battlefield.

City officials and residents also argued over the location for the memorial after some complained that it would be too visible in the Civic Center park.

A public reception to preview the memorial will be held tonight at Miranda International art gallery in Laguna Beach. Vietnam War veteran Russell Kolins was among those watching Friday as the sculpture was moved to the gallery.

"It makes me feel good to see this because it's more symbolic of the way people feel about the Vietnam War now," he said. "The public seems to understand now."

Many are happy the project is done.

"I think the idea is noble. A lot of the fighters in Vietnam returned and were forgotten," said Nguyen Phuong Hung, a South Vietnamese Army Ranger who lost two brothers in the war. "And they received no honors, no recognition. We returned not as heroes but [as losers] of the war," he said. "I was afraid the project might never be completed."

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