Many Vietnam War veterans returned home to cries of protest — something that Manfred Edenhofer, president of the Queens chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Association, believes does not do justice to the individuals who served either voluntarily or through the draft.
“I didn’t know why we were over there, but we were over there, so let’s do our job,” Edenhofer said. “I knew I was going to Vietnam, didn’t know if I was coming back. I lost my closest friend over there … We didn’t want applause. We just didn’t want to be called baby killers. It was a strange war. Maybe we shouldn’t have been over there, but we were.”
But the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Elmhurst Park — for which ground was broken on Nov. 29 — seeks to set a different tone for remembering a generation of men and women who feel that served their country like any other soldier in any other conflict, but have been forgotten.
Supporters gave credit to the chapter’s late president, Pat Toro, for his work pushing for the memorial. He died in 2014 from cancer related to the chemical Agent Orange, which was used during the Vietnam War in which Toro served. His dying wish was to see the memorial completed, after spending years advocating for it.
He didn’t live to see Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony, but retired servicemen from Queens neighborhoods including Bayside and Woodhaven took part in the event.
Up to 370 Queens residents were killed in the conflict and the memorial will remember those soldiers along with veterans such as Toro who died of illness related to the war.
Borough President Melinda Katz allocated $2.5 million to building the memorial which she and Edenhofer did not believe would ever be completed as it was 15 years in the making.
According to Edenhofer, with the majority of Vietnam veterans in Queens being above the age of 70, there was concern many of them would not live long enough to see the groundbreaking.
“Ultimately this is going to be something good. There are a lot of monuments around Queens County, but this is going to be the only one that’s going to have all the names,” Paul Schottenhamel, the adjutant for Queens County American Legion, said.
Schottenhamel was an Army infantryman in Vietnam who was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds he endured in Cambodia.
Katz was joined by state Senator Joseph Addabbo, Assemblyman Brian Barnell and Councilman Robert Holden at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Woodside is known to have the highest number of losses in Vietnam by ZIP code, according to Michael O’Kane, the former president of Queens chapter the VVA.
“In 2008, Pat Toro had an idea. It became his dream to build a monument to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in the mountains, rice patties, rivers, skies and waters of Vietnam,” O’Kane said. “I visited [Toro] in the hospital several times. I was there the night before he passed. One of the last things he said to me was in regard to this memorial. ‘Get it done,’ he said. This was literally his dying wish.”
The city Department of Parks and Recreation is slated to have the project completed by the fall of 2019.
“We are elated to celebrate the start of construction on this memorial, which is the product of years of collaboration between Parks, Borough President Katz, and local veterans,” Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski said. “The result is a thoughtful design that pays tribute to our borough’s heroes, and provides a physical space for contemplation and community gathering.”
Although veterans groups advocated for a combat cross, the design of a helmet atop a rifle, the Parks Department design will feature a wall and gardens instead.
Edenhofer pointed out that while there are World War I and World War II monuments in Queens, the only sites paying homage to Vietnam deaths in the borough are neighborhood-based, such as Doughboy Plaza in Woodside.
“We [Vietnam veterans] are all in our 70s. There might be one or two in his 60s and a couple so old we don’t even want to talk about it. But when we’re gone there’s no more draft,” Edenhofer, who volunteered to serve in the Marines, said. “People don’t have to worry about getting drafted, so they forget about it. They see a blurb in the newspaper about sergeant so-and-so died in Afghanistan today, oh where’s the sale pages. It doesn’t mean anything because they don’t have to worry about it happening to them.”
“We were pretty much the forgotten guys,” Edenhofer concluded.