The opening of first borough-wide Vietnam memorial in Queens was a bittersweet moment for both Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and for outgoing Borough President Melinda Katz.
Katz and NYC Parks held a ceremony for the memorial in Elmhurst Park on the morning of Friday, Dec. 20. For the veterans group, ceremony culminated the vision of former Chapter 32 President Pat Toro who started the push for the monument before passing away from cancer related to Agent Orange exposure in 2014.
For Katz, her involvement in the project extends from her tenure on City Council when she first secured funding for it in 2008 to her last ribbon-cutting ceremony as borough president.
Built on the northwest corner of Elmhurst Park, the project is the first unified Vietnam memorial to honor all of the 371 Queens service members who died during the Vietnam War or those classified as “missing in action.”
“It’s representative of who Queens is. You’ve got every ethnic group you can think of on that wall. Probably most religions. Many of them are not citizens. They died serving a country they weren’t event a citizen of,” said John Rowan, national president of the VVA.
But the memorial is not just those who died overseas.
“It is dedicated to all the people who came home from the war who are still dying today from afflictions they got during the war,” added Katz.
The monument is formed of two two curved concrete slats engraved with bamboo on one side and the names of these soldiers on the west-facing side to catch the reflection of the sun as it rises.
“If there is a sun in the sky the names of those men will gleam brightly,” said Katz.
During their remarks, Councilman Robert Holden and Juniper Park Civic Association Tony Nunziato recalled the process of procuring the land, which had formerly been the site of 275-feet-wide gas tanks visible from the nearby highway.
Former VVA Chapter 32 President Michael O’Kane said that when the city removed the tanks and sold the land for $1, it was the work of local leaders that brought the memorial idea to fruition.
“Thanks to Bob Holden and Juniper civic, the site was saved from being a Home Depot. I think we’d be standing in the kitchen remodeling section right here,” said O’Kane.
The memorial’s design and construction was fully funded by Katz, who allocated $2.3 million in capital funding over the past two years, in addition to the $550,000 she first offered in 2008 for her first project as Borough President.