orangeleader.com (Orange, Texas)

January 6, 2013

Clay coming to life for Texas Vietnam memorial

Associated Press
Associated Press

BASTROP, Texas — Forty years after President Richard Nixon announced the end of U.S. offensive operations against North Vietnam, a monument to the half-million Texans who served and the 3,417 who died as a result of the war is taking shape.

Groundbreaking for a Texas Vietnam Veterans Monument is set for early this year in Austin with installation on the state Capitol grounds by late 2013. The bronze monument is now under construction at a Central Texas foundry.

"The inspiration we had is there is a monument to Texans who have served all the way back to the Alamo," says Robert Floyd, chairman of the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument.

Besides remembering the Alamo, the 22-acre Capitol building site already hosts memorials to those who fought in the Civil War, the two World Wars and in Korea.

A working clay model that eventually will become the Vietnam War monument nearly fills the gallery at the Deep in the Heart Art Foundry in Bastrop, about 30 miles east of Austin.

What will be a 14-foot-tall structure — including a rose-colored granite pedestal to match the color of the Capitol building — features five men representing the five military branches. They include a Caucasian, Hispanic, African, Asian and Native American and show them as a radio operator, a medic, a wounded person, a sniper and an ordinary military grunt. The five, depicted about 1½ times actual size, are shown in action on the remains of a temple.

"There are no insignias on the figures, to represent the brotherhood of patrol," said Floyd, an Austin-based lobbyist who spent a year in Vietnam with 101st Airborne in 1969-70 and who's been involved with the project since the idea surfaced nearly a decade ago. "It's to be a composite of all those who served."

Unique to this Texas memorial will be a smartphone app that will allow visitors to electronically link to additional information.

Some 58,000 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War, and Texas is second only to California in the number of Americans both sent and lost there. Plans call for 3,417 dog tags to be entombed in the monument to represent those Texans who died.

Among the first Americans to die in Vietnam was Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand, 44, of Copperas Cove, who was an adviser to the South Vietnamese army. He and another U.S. soldier were killed during an ambush in July 1959. The last Texan killed was Marine Pfc. Antonio Ramos Sandoval, from San Antonio, who died in a helicopter that was shot down in May 1975, two weeks after the fall of Saigon.

Floyd said a common question he gets is why this memorial took so long.

"I think one of the reasons has to do with Vietnam war itself," he said. "Korean War veterans, they call it the war America forgot. And we sometimes say (Vietnam) is the war Americans wanted to or want to forget.

"Like a lot of veterans, Vietnam veterans are reticent to talk about their service. They were not welcomed home. They were protested when they went over and protested when they came back."

In 2005, the Texas Legislature passed a joint resolution authorizing construction of the monument. Raising the private money to build it, however, was a struggle. It wasn't until September 2011 that the state began matching donations up to a total of $500,000. That's helped as project backers closed in on a budget goal of about $1.5 million. Additional money will go toward educational programs about the war.

Foundry sculptors are using hand tools to shape some 300 pounds of heated clay which was brushed about one-eighth-inch thick on plastic foam, bringing to life the intricate details of the men and their equipment. When the clay sculptors are about 95 percent complete, New Mexico artist Duke Sundt, who designed the piece, will come in for the finishing touches. Sundt's work already includes an iconic bronze Longhorn on the University of Texas campus in Austin.

The hundreds of hours of tedious work on the monument is a privilege, said 35-year-old Jake Jurkovac, a sculptor and the foundry's assistant plant manager.

"It really is an honor to do something like this," he said while scraping at the clay with a tiny rake. "It's certainly something that should be done. And when you get down to it, the reward is seeing how much it means to people."

Floyd is thrilled with the progress.

"To see it actually take shape is hard to describe," he said. "To see the figures come to life, it's very meaningful to actually see it and see them doing the work."

To finish the monument, they'll use an ancient process known as lost wax casting, a series of molds involving modern silicon rubber, wax, ceramics and molten bronze heated to some 2,000 degrees. A crane will be needed to install the 5,500-pound monument just northeast of the Capitol building. Dedication is tentatively set for November.

Groundbreaking on the Capitol grounds is scheduled for March 25. Floyd said a first-ever reading of the names of those killed would be part of ceremonies a day earlier at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum at the University of Texas.