Vietnam War Monument unveiled on Memorial Day

A crowd admires the newly unveiled Vietnam War Monument at the Maui Veterans Cemetery in Makawao on Monday. The monument was dedicated as part of the annual Memorial Day ceremonies at the cemetery. It bears photos of the battlefield, a map of Vietnam and the names of the 42 Maui County veterans killed in action. The monument is the fourth to be built at the cemetery, following the Korean War, World War I and World War II monuments. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photos

MAKAWAO — When Robert Moniz looks at the names of the 42 Maui County veterans killed in Vietnam, he sees friends and classmates from Maui High and St. Joseph School.

“The monument is basically about these guys,” Moniz said Monday, touching the names on the newly dedicated Vietnam War Monument at the Maui Veterans Cemetery.

Moniz and other veterans welcomed the unveiling of the monument at the annual Memorial Day ceremony on Monday. It’s the fourth monument built at the cemetery in honor of Maui County veterans. The Korean War memorial was dedicated in 2007, followed by the World War I memorial in 2010 and the World War II memorial last year.

The new Vietnam monument has four sides: one honoring the branches of the military, prisoners of war and those missing in action; another displaying photos of the battlefield; one with the names of those killed in action and another with a map of Vietnam.

“The pictures take you back . . . and the map tells people where you went,” said Vietnam veteran Karl Calleon, who researched monuments across the country for inspiration. “It tells a story, and the only guy who can tell the story is the guy who went.”

Kahu Alalani Hill (far right) and the boys of Cub Scout Pack 68, Wailuku Elementary, pay their respects to the fallen at the Korean War Memorial as part of a blessing after the ceremony Monday.

Mitch Skaggerberg, president of the Vietnam Veterans of Maui County, said the monument had been a dream of local veterans for about 20 years, but with interest low and other memorials still in the making, “we had pretty much given up that we would ever see a monument here,” he said.

But over the past few years, a committee of veterans has been meeting and working to make the monument a reality.

Wailea resident Janna Hoehn, who worked with the veterans on the Vietnam monument, said that at first she envisioned all of the memorials keeping the same design — a large stone etched with a message of dedication to the veterans of Maui County. However, the Vietnam veterans wanted to list the names of those killed in action, which required something a bit bigger.

“The Vietnam veterans, you know, they weren’t honored,” said Hoehn, who spent five years tracking down photos of all 277 Hawaii Vietnam veterans killed in combat. “They weren’t respected when they came home. . . . And I think that they just felt that they really wanted to do something different.”

Hoehn said the monument would have cost $20,000 if not for all the people who offered their services free of charge. Oregon Tile & Marble donated the granite. Pacific Source waived the shipping fees. Next Level Marble & Granite did the installation and Walker Industries donated the concrete base. The remaining costs were covered by a $4,500 Maui County grant. Hoehn said the monument was engraved by Valley Isle Monument, and the photos were etched by Pacific Sign & Design.

A shower of 10,000 petals dropped by Blue Hawaiian Helicopters rains down on headstones at the Maui Veterans Cemetery Monday morning. Monday’s ceremony marked the 150th anniversary of the Memorial Day holiday.

“I think this is going to make a lot of veterans happy,” Vietnam veteran and Kihei resident Richard Vargas Jr. said. “It took a while, but better now than later where majority of the veterans are gone.”

The list of names has special meaning for Moniz. There’s Walter Browne and Michael Pacheco, who went to Maui High with him, and James Soriano, who Moniz had known since kindergarten at St. Joseph School.

Moniz was sent to Vietnam shortly after graduating from Maui High in 1966, and remembers he went in “young and cocky” and unaware of the realities of war until he arrived.

“You’re scared as hell in the beginning, and you’re scared as hell at the end,” Moniz said.

Moniz has plenty of memories that he would rather forget, but plenty of names that he never will.

U.S. Rep. and Army National Guard Maj. Tulsi Gabbard places flowers at the base of the Korean War memorial while a group of Maui County Korean War veterans looks on.

“It’s all about them, not me,” he said, glancing at the monument.

Hoehn said the Vietnam monument is the last one for now, though she expects there to eventually be one for every war. Skaggerberg added that the monument was built for all veterans, whether they’re active in the Maui County veteran community or not.

“The veterans did this for every veteran here, where they can come up on their own time . . . just like the wall in D.C.,” he said. “It’s for all the veterans. Come see and be proud.”

Monday’s ceremony also marked a milestone as the 150th anniversary of the Memorial Day holiday, said Elena Walker, events coordinator for the Maui County Veterans Council. The annual ceremony featured music, speeches, recognition for the Maui County veterans who died within the past year and the traditional shower of 10,000 petals dropped from a helicopter.

Keynote speaker and decorated 30-year Navy veteran Jim Hickerson recounted his time as a prisoner of war, mostly in Hanoi, from Dec. 22, 1967, to March 14, 1973.

Members of Melemai Kapu’uwaimai sing “I Give My Heart” during Monday’s service.

“It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t easy,” he said. “You’ve lost control of your life. You can’t do anything 24/7 without being told to do it.”

Hickerson remembered being confined to a small room with a couple of other men who he would get to know better than his own wife. Every so often they were dragged out for “quizzes,” or brutal interrogation sessions with their captors. The prisoners communicated between rooms through an elaborate tapping system.

“I tapped with a guy for over two years,” Hickerson said. “And I could tell if he was sick. I could tell if he was mad. I could tell his feelings just by listening to him.”

Hickerson said he survived thanks to “God, country and my fellow prisoners.” By the time he came home, his wife had found someone else. But Hickerson ended up meeting and marrying Carole Hanson, whose husband, Stephen Hanson, was shot down over Laos in a top secret mission. Frustrated with the lack of answers over her husband’s fate, Carole Hanson wrote letters to hundreds of newspapers trying to help others get to know the missing men. She soon found a community of people searching for answers about their missing-in-action and prisoner-of-war family members. Together they formed the National League of Families for POW/MIAs in 1970.

For families like the Hickersons, who now live in Honolulu, Memorial Day means more than just BBQs and discounts.

“You can talk to some Americans, and when you say Memorial Day, they say, ‘Oh yeah, they’re going to the beach,’ ‘I’m going to try and hit Macy’s because they’re having a good sale,’ “ Carole Hickerson said. “And yeah, those things are true. But you took the time to come and spend it honoring those that have given their lives for our country.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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