A Vietnam memorial in Salinas inches toward actualization.
Thursday, November 9, 2000
Dionne Ybarra-Greenberg was three months old when her father was shot down by friendly fire in the jungles of Vietnam.
"I met some men that had gone to school with my father and all gone to Vietnam together," she says. "They had a party over there and my dad was the only one that never showed up. It took them 30 years to share that with me."
Ybarra-Greenberg now volunteers with the Monterey County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee, a group formed in 1989 with the goal of constructing a war memorial to their slain brothers and loved ones. On Saturday, committee members will commemorate their tenth Veterans Day together.
As in years past, the celebration will be on a hill overlooking the green pastures of lowland Salinas. A host of small white crosses marks the spot where, someday, a large stainless steel flag will be erected and etched with the names of the 75 young servicemen from Monterey County who never returned from Vietnam. But not unlike the war that claimed those lives, the process to honor its dead with a monument has lasted far longer than anyone predicted, and been fraught with questions of purpose and divided hopes.
Though funding remains elusive, momentum to complete the project has been at a high since early 1999, when the city of Salinas began doling out the $8 million it pocketed from the sale of the Crazy Horse landfill to the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority back in 1997. Although the bulk of the money went to fixing city streets and sidewalks, City Councilmember and Memorial Committee member Fernando Armenta saw an opportunity for the memorial and put a proposal on the table to fund the project by architect Peter Kasavan, estimated to cost $1.2 million.
After much deliberation, the council allotted $500,000 to build a park--including a gazebo, a bike trail and picnic spots--on the lower end of the memorial site next to existing soccer fields, but not a penny went to the memorial itself.
Jyl Lutes, one of two councilmembers who voted against the funding, favored a Veterans Memorial Library over the park. "I have difficulty spending very few precious dollars on a memorial for one war," Lutes explains. "Yes, we''re all very proud of people that gave their lives in Vietnam. It was a tragedy. But we have crying needs in this community.
"We made it very clear: We will put our money toward a veterans park, but not towards the memorial," says Lutes. "We wanted to be a watchdog on this park, to make sure that people from throughout the community use it. If you want to go up and pay your respect to those that served in Vietnam, that''s separate."
The idea that building a memorial to the dead should not take precedence over caring for the living has dogged the project since its inception.
Back in 1989, brothers Jesus and Fernando Armenta, along with David Keith (all members of the Vietnam Veterans of Monterey County, or VVMC), gathered support for the memorial idea, eventually splitting off from the VVMC to form the Memorial Committee. According to Jesus Armenta, president and founder of the Memorial Committee, "We formed a new organization because the memorial project required so much time. We didn''t want to participate in other things that would distract us from that."
But the move away from the mother organization, which focuses primarily on aiding destitute veterans, gave way to ill will that persists today. The remaining bitterness is evidenced in a recent letter from VVMC''s president Maitland Cuthbertson to Armenta, complaining that VVMC hasn''t received proper thanks for its support of the project and casting aspersions on the Memorial Committee''s fiscal management.
Nevertheless, Cuthbertson says he hopes the project comes to fruition. "We just felt that the living need a lot of help too," he says, explaining why the VVMC didn''t take on the memorial project. "So we were not about to give everything we had to them."
Indeed, the intrepid dozen or so members of the Memorial Committee have gone it pretty much on their own. When the group set its sights on a piece of county land off the Laurel extension in Salinas back in 1990, it met opposition from some county supervisors. The group''s response: A reenactment of a ''taking of the hill'' reminiscent of battle, replete with the staking of an American flag on what soon became the Veterans Memorial Park.
The notion of separating the needs of veterans from the needs of society at large irks Jesus Armenta, who points out that with 18,000 vets in Salinas and 40,000 countywide, veterans are an important part of the community. But the committee is focusing on the next stage of the battle now: raising the additional $500,000 needed for the memorial project itself. So far, the group has received only nickel and dime donations, but has secured pro bono assistance from several trade organizations. Fernando Armenta intends to take the issue to the county supervisors when he is sworn in this January.
Ybarra-Greenberg appears certain that it won''t take another 10 years before the memorial, which she calls a place for healing, gets built.
"They''re still carrying it, they still need to cry," she says of the survivors. "Everyone needs to know we never have to face something that ugly and fearful again."