For more than a decade, a group of Vietnam veterans from Queens has been on a mission to build a monument that will honor their fallen comrades.
After years of meetings and lobbying, shovels went into the ground on Thursday to mark the start of construction on a $2.8 million Queens Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Elmhurst Park.
It was a moment that was both satisfying and bittersweet for Vietnam veteran Michael O’Kane.
The memorial was the passion project of his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Pat Toro, a decorated Marine who died in 2014 from an illness he believed was related to Agent Orange exposure.
“One of the last things he said to me was ‘Get this done,’ ” O’Kane, who lives in Glendale, recalled. “It was literally his dying wish.”
Toro and O’Kane both served as presidents of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 32 in Queens. The group believed the borough needed a monument where veterans and their families could go to reflect and remember the loved ones they lost.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz helped acquire some of the funding in 2008 when she served in the City Council.
"Because of [Toro’s] leadership and that of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 32, the service members who made the ultimate sacrifice during and as a result of that conflict will have a fitting and dignified tribute, right here in the borough they proudly called ‘home’," Katz said in a statement.”
Joanne Amagrande, chief of staff for Queens Parks, worked with the veterans on a design for the memorial.
“These veterans have been getting sick and passing on, so we really expedited this as much as we could,” she said. "It’s been such an honor to work with them. We listened to their stories, and that’s what makes this monument so unique. We really wanted to capture their stories.”
The design is a circular granite monument in two parts with the names of 371 people who lost their lives while serving in Vietnam or succumbed to injuries caused by the war. It includes the five crests of the military and the Vietnam Service Medal.
The monument will also include a history of the war and etchings of bamboo, an important symbol of the landscape soldiers also had to battle.
“It was torture for us,” said O’Kane. “It was razor sharp and cut you when you had to go through it.”
Amagrande said the memorial will be illuminated and situated in such a manner that the midmorning and late afternoon sun will highlight the names of the deceased.
“When you stand in the middle of it, you are going to experience something,” O’Kane said. “I know I will.”