GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 22, 2012

No room for Vietnam? City's Memorial Day plans draw fire over ceremony snub

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The city's Memorial Day Parade will take a new route this year.

It begins downtown and ends at the World War II Memorial along Stacy Boulevard — but no longer has a place, officials say, for the Vietnam Memorial, tucked into a nearly hidden exterior corner of the Gloucester High School campus, which had 11 of its own die in the lost war the U.S. entered 50 years ago.

Cut from the official program, the Vietnam Memorial ceremony will be held anyway by Disabled American Veterans Chapter 74, said attorney Mark Nestor, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. The ceremony will be timed to begin after the conclusion of the official Memorial Day program.

The Cape Ann Transit Authority will provide a trolley to take participants from the World War II Memorial to the Vietnam Memorial, Bob Ryan, general manager of CATA's Operating Company, announced Monday.

"Let's say I have a vested interest in that most of the 11 individuals that made the ultimate sacrifice attended Gloucester High with me," Ryan explained.

Still, the decision to eliminate the Vietnam Memorial ceremony from the city's official program has produced hurt, anger and chagrin.

"Sadly," Nestor wrote in an email communicating the city's decision to veterans and community leaders, "Vietnam veterans for many years labored in obscurity, largely forgotten and ignored by society despite the sacrifices that were made in the name of freedom."

The planned change drew fire from city councilors.

"Totally unnecessary" said Councilor Bruce Tobey.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said Councilor Joe Ciolino.

"I plan on going to the 'other' event," said Councilor Greg Verga. "My personal view is that it would have been nice to keep it part of the official program. At the very least, it would have been preferable that it not be announced last minute that it had been cut."

Mayor Carolyn Kirk on Monday defended the decision to change the route and drop official recognition of the Vietnam Memorial ceremony, which she said was "conceived and implemented by" Veterans Agent Jeff Williams, based on "input from veterans of many wars."

"The argument is based on 'we are one country that has fought many wars,'" Kirk said in an email. "With veterans returned and returning from Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., the concern was that every war would end up with its own Memorial Day service, and our veterans agent strongly believes — and I concur — that there should be unity on Memorial Day.

"I believe he tried to work out a single program, but there was little interest in working out a way to combine the two services," Kirk added.

"I said I wanted the Vietnam ceremony," said Nestor. "It was not on the dance card. (Veterans Agent Williams) said the ceremony was getting too large.

"I think some part of the city doesn't understand the significance of the Vietnam War," said Nestor.

On recent Memorial Days, he noted Monday, "more and more Vietnam veterans were attending and reuniting with the fellow comrades after many years,"

At the 2010 Vietnam Memorial ceremony, a large map of Vietnam pinned to a mat on an easel noted where, when and how each of the 11 Gloucester High School soldiers' lives were given, taken and lost.

"We have no problem with the city having their own ceremony," said Nestor, who has also written letters and My View columns in the Times for Memorial and Veterans days — signing them not only as a Gloucester resident, but a member of the "Vietnam, Class of 1970."

"If they didn't want to include us," he added, "we'll have our own (ceremony). I invited the mayor and the City Council."

The new parade route, with a mustering at Harbor Loop and main ceremonies at the World War II Memorial at Kent Circle, meant that to include a stop at the Vietnam Memorial would have required a detour either before or after the main ceremonies. The mayor cited the changed "route" in her explanation for the decision to no longer include the Vietnam Memorial ceremony in the official agenda for Memorial Day.

Memorial Day, to be marked next Monday, was a holiday that sprang up informally and almost simultaneously in many small towns on both sides of the Civil War in its immediate aftermath.

On Memorial Day, along with barbecues heralding the start of the summer season, the president or vice president places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, among other solemn national traditions. But Gloucester's own Memorial Day ceremonies — which included a parade forming at Gloucester High School, with a procession to the World War II Memorial, then a return visit to the high school for the Vietnam ceremony — had taken on a traditional role as well.

"I am extremely disappointed in the timing and rationale on not including the Vietnam Memorial in our 2012 Memorial Day ceremonies," said Ciolino. "The Vietnam veterans are observing the 50th anniversaries of the start of the war. I cannot believe that the city chose this year to end the services.

"Vietnam vets have always had to endure the lack of respect and recognition they received during this sad time in United States history," he continued. "I believed we were passed it and now give the Vietnam veterans the respect and recognition they so deserve. It is personal to me because many of the Gloucester men who lost their lives in Vietnam were classmates of mine at Gloucester High School Class of 1965."

Tobey added that participation in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) was involuntary in Gloucester for many years.

"Every one of those names (engraved on the simple Gloucester Vietnam Memorial) was a kid out of the Gloucester ROTC program," Tobey said.

To disconnect the ceremony from the city, he said, was to disconnect the high school from Memorial Day.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.