Vietnam veterans came in wheelchairs and walkers, some bearing gifts of combat boots or a single playing card, which they laid in front of the names of their lost buddies, who will be forever remembered in the Moving Wall exhibit, currently on display in Cunningham Park.
But it wasn’t only Vietnam veterans who came out Saturday morning for the official opening of the one-week exhibit, which is a smaller replica of the permanent one in Washington, D.C. Local politicians, a former South Vietnam resident and the curious braved an overcast, windy fall day to honor the 52,228 men and women who lost their lives in the Vietnam War or were reported missing in action.
The exhibit closes with a special ceremony on Friday at 11 a.m. in the Fresh Meadows park. The 252-foot replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is a somber reminder of all this country lost in an unpopular war that the United States lost.
It was brought to Queens in a three-year effort by Pat Toro Jr., president of the Queens chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Members helped staff tents, where visitors could locate the name of someone on the wall, could receive counselling or find out more about the conflict that left this country so divided.
While in Queens, the Moving Wall will be open around the clock and security provided by the VVA. Additional lighting has been added.
During the opening ceremony, Toro, wearing his Marine uniform, noted the war ended in 1975. “To those who came home the memories of the war continue today. To those who never came home and whose names appear on the wall, the Moving Wall is a testimony to their courage, strength and honor and their ultimate sacrifice.”
Telling the audience “we must never forget their contributions,” Toro added: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”
Although a chilly breeze caused the premature falling of oak leaves in front of the speakers’ platform, the rain held off until the ceremony ended. Two of the most moving speeches were given by a local congressman and a Catholic priest, who grew up in war-torn Vietnam.
Congressman Anthony Weiner said the wall was “so powerful” and a perfect memorial in its simplicity. “When traffic slows you down, when your dry cleaning isn’t ready on time, it’s no hardship. Think of the soldiers today sleeping on the hard ground and eating rations from a plastic container in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Connecting the Vietnam War with the current conflicts, Weiner added, “Every freedom we have today is due to our veterans. Never forget that there is a difference between the war and the warriors.”
Father Cuong Pham, of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Queens Village, says he and his family owe everything to the people of the United States. His father fought alongside American troops during the war with the South Vietnam Army and lived to suffer its consequences.
“My father fought with you and stayed behind (when the war was over) and we suffered,” he said. “My father was in prison for five years and our home taken away. We were taught by the Communists and I had to rely on my mother’s stories to show me the truth.”
One of five children, Father Pham and his family were eventually allowed to leave the country under a humanitarian operation in the United States. His oldest brother, over the age of 21, was forced to stay behind and eventually jailed for 7 years.
“We were in tears when we came to the United States. I was 17. The veterans came out to greet us and gave us a new life in Flushing. I’m grateful for you and this nation.”
His siblings are either in college or already graduated and his parents now live in Forest Hills. Father Pham is hopeful that some day his oldest brother will be allowed to move here.
Also speaking was Major General Richard Colt, commander of the 77th Regional Support Command at Fort Totten in Bayside. A Vietnam veteran himself, he said that seeing the wall again proves that “time doesn’t heal the hurt for many.”
He noted that 6,000 soldiers from his command are currently in harm’s way. “We continue the tradition of service. You are in good hands today, as you were in previous wars.”
Offering their thanks to veterans were Councilmembers Dennis Gallagher and John Liu. Assemblymembers who spoke included Marge Markey, Mark Weprin, Michael Cohen and Brian McLaughlin, who noted that 328 Queens residents lost their lives in the Vietnam War.
State Senators Frank Padavan and Serphin Maltese also said a few words. The program ended with a wreath-laying ceremony, “Amazing Grace,” performed by the Port Authority Emerald Society Band and the playing of taps