Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument, My Groundbreaking Experience

I went to Austin this week for the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument Groundbreaking. The monument was approved by Texas Lawmakers in 2005. Legislation for the monument was sponsored by two men, both Vietnam Veterans: Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa and Representative Wayne Smith.  When completed, the monument will stand on the northeast side of the Texas Capitol grounds. It honors Texans who fought or otherwise served, and in many cases gave their lives during the Vietnam War as part of this nation's Armed Forces, and stands as an abiding reminder of their service, sacrifice and courage.  

On Sunday, March 24th, we went to the LBJ Presidential Library to view the Texas Vietnam Heroes Exhibit. It is a 30 foot long exhibit with 3,417 dog tags made to honor and remember every Texan who died in the Vietnam War. Two blank tags are part of the group to represent those Texans known only to God who died in Vietnam.

The names are in alphabetical order. As my Mother, my Brother and I approached the area where my father's tag was hanging, I got the same feeling I got when I visited the Vietnam Veterans Wall in Washington, D.C. in 1984. I knew that feeling. I was about to be able to touch something tangible with my father's name on it and it was there to honor his memory. I saw my father's name but I only pointed so that my mother would be the first to touch it. 
There it was:

Morgan
Lowell E
Hillsboro TX
USA       MAJ
3 June 1967

All information I had written on my heart long ago.

It was so moving. We were there with many other families that came to see, to touch, to remember.  I saw a woman crying with her family. I placed my hand on her shoulder and asked who she was there to honor. "My Brother" she replied and we embraced for at least a minute both crying for each other, knowing what each had endured for so many years. The hurt that never goes away. Somehow the grief diminished as we hugged with our common bond.

After seeing the exhibit we went to listen to the reading of the names in the LBJ Library Auditorium. Respect was shown by maintaining silence throughout the day as the names of the 3,417 fallen were read. My cousin, Brock Huddleston called the names of 40 lost including my father's name. To the left of the readers sat a box with 3,417 identical tags to those in the Texas Heroes Exhibit. These will be entombed in the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument.

We listened to many others call names. Some came as a family, some came alone and read names of comrades, some as a Mother and Father. It was all part of the process, the healing process. The slow healing process and although it was so emotional to hear my father's name on a roll call list that no one wants to be on, a list of the fallen, it still gave us a little more closure and an affirmation of "Gone, but not forgotten." 

Me, My Brother Steven who is a Veteran and my Mother, Barbara

This is my cousin's wife Cheri Huddleston with her colleague Robert Floyd, Chairman of the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument Committee. Robert and his committee have tirelessly worked for years on this project and I am so thankful for them. Robert is a Vietnam Veteran and served in the 101st Airborne Division. I grew to know him through correspondence in the last several weeks and had the pleasure of meeting his wife and daughters this week. 

Sunday evening we were invited to a reception for Vietnam Veterans and their families. When we first arrived I felt a bit out of place. Most of the people there were in groups with familiar faces. We didn't know anyone there when we arrived. I noticed flight wings on a mans jacket and as I got closer I saw the words "U.S. Army Aviation".  I walked up to the man and told him my father was a Mohawk reconnaissance pilot and I recognized the flight wings on his jacket like my father used to wear. He asked, "Who was your father?"  I started to say "Lowell". Before I finished his name, the man said, "Lowell E. Morgan, June 3, 1967."  
He turned around and there was the Mohawk! The reconnaissance plane my father flew! The man we met was Mack Gray. He too had flown the  Mohawk in Vietnam. He had never met my father but knew all about him. He arrived in Vietnam a year after my father died. 

Mack and his wife joined my Mother, Cheri and our cousin Diana at dinner that evening and he answered questions I had wondered about all of my life. I do not believe this meeting was anything other than Divine Intervention. I had an entire evening to sit and ask a man what day to day life was like in Vietnam, how long were their flights, how far away was Gia Ray mountain where my father died from where they were based in Vung Tau.  I tried to grasp and memorize each word he said. When I got back to my hotel that evening I could not sleep as I thought about the gift I had been given in meeting Mack Gray.
The evening that began with not knowing anyone turned into an evening where I felt no one was a stranger. I must give a big Thank You to Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas for sponsoring this evening and for the great Texas BBQ Meal they served. 




That evening we met the man that hand stamped the dog tags, Don "Tex" Dorsey. He served in the 1st Marine Division, 1st Regiment as a Scout sniper in Vietnam. I got to thank him for his dedication to this project and tell him how special the tags were to hold.  
We left the dinner and I was so excited I could not go back to our hotel room without riding around in Austin and talking a while. We drove by the State Capitol and I stopped to take this picture. Our beautiful Capitol looked more stunning than I had ever seen her before.
I took this picture on Monday morning when we arrived for breakfast at the Capitol. We didn't want to be late so we got there so early, the sun wasn't even up! We parked and started walking. On our way, we met John Footman, Past Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He escorted Mom and me to the doorsteps of the Capitol.

This is our breakfast invitation.
The meal was hosted by Bell Helicopter.
Joe Galloway, combat correspondent who reported on the Vietnam War. Mr. Galloway was awarded the Bronze Star with the "V" device for valor, the only civilian to receive the honor from the U.S. Army for service in the Vietnam War. He was the guest speaker at the breakfast.



Mrs. Texas International Rachel Blaketer Hedstrom was there. She was also at the dinner the previous evening thanking Veterans. Part of her mission is to educate young students about appreciation for Veterans. She is a good speaker and great advocate for Veterans.


We enjoyed our breakfast with Duke and Suzanne Sundt. Duke is the artist who is sculpting the monument. Next to him are Robert Floyd's daughters and next to them are the other Sundts - Duke's brother and his wife. He attended West Point and he and his wife were stationed in many of the same places we were when we were an Army family. Again, we walked into a room knowing no one and left with friends. 

I met Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. Jerry is a Vietnam Veteran. He volunteered for service and served as a Naval Flight Officer and served in Marine fighter squadrons. I know him more as a man that promotes Texas History awareness. I love learning about Texas History. 

A little Texas History note: The Office of Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office is the oldest, continued elected position in Texas History. Established by the Republic of Texas immediately after the Texas Revolution in 1836, the position predates the position of Governor and other state offices established by annexation in 1845.  

I never dreamed I would meet Luci Baines Johnson. As she spoke to my mother and me, tears ran down her cheeks. She embraced us and shared her feelings and in turn, we shared ours. It was a moment I will never forget. 



My Uncle Bud (Col. Edwin Davison, USAFR Retired) and Aunt Pat arrived and they got to meet the President's daughter before we stepped outside for the ceremony.
We walked outside and I could see the Patriot Guard had arrived as a line of flags proceeded toward the groundbreaking area.

It was a beautiful day for the ceremony but the temperature was in the 30's! A very chilly morning.

Every detail of the ceremony had been carefully planned.

The replica of the monument was displayed for all to see.

The 3,417 dog tags sat on a table encased in a vintage ammunition canister. They will be entombed inside the monument.



The guests arrived.

The Patriot Guard Surrounded us.

Their presence was comforting. I tried to shake the hands of as many as possible to thank them for being there.

Robert Floyd

Representative Wayne Smith

Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa

The Honorable Lee Leffingwell, Mayor of Austin gave a proclamation of profound compassion and gratitude to Veterans and their families.

Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst "The very appreciative Eyes of Texas are upon you" were words he spoke addressing Veterans.
Karoni Forrester, Texas State Coordinator of the National League of POW/MIA Families.
Her profound words about those who remain MIA including her father, Ronald Wayne Forrester touched my heart. She is a woman who has experienced one of life's most deepest hurts for all but two of her years of living. She has turned her tragedy into a mission for POW/MIA. the eloquent words she spoke come from someone who has lived with the worst outcome of war. My father was MIA for only a few days until his body was recovered. I cannot imagine how life would have been if it weren't for those that go into harms way to bring back the lost. I pray that one day the family of Karoni and all of the others who wait will someday be able to have closure. 

Ready to Break Ground

After the ceremony we ran into our friend again - John Footman, Past Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. 


We watched as he turned the soil and broke the ground.


Then it was time for Mom and me. Time for Texas soil to be broken. Broken so that healing may begin on this sacred land. I thought about Veterans this week. During time of battle when comrades and friends are lost, there is no time to grieve. They had to instantly move on to survive and persevere.  Texas is building a memorial on the Capitol grounds so these Veterans can come, remember, grieve and be recognized for their service to the United States and to Texas. 


We met Lt. Governor David Dewhurst. When he found out the age I was when my father died, he shared about the loss of his father when he was only three. I could see in his eyes how heartfelt his words were and that we were not just constituents. We had a bond and both knew life without a father for whom we yearned. He is such a gracious man. I am proud to have him serving Texas.  
We left the ground breaking area to see the dog tags leave for their journey to Bastrop to be placed inside the monument. The monument is being made in Bastrop. We had not planned on going to Bastrop but wanted to see them leave. Luci Johnson walked with us around the Capitol. Before we reached the other side we heard the sound of the Patriot Guard motorcycles rumbling. We were too late. By this time Luci's sister Lynda Bird Johnson Robb had joined us. I could not believe I was actually talking with the two daughters of Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson. Lady Bird was a woman I respected and admired and loved because of the way she loved Texas.  I never look at our beautiful Texas wildflowers without thinking of her. The day before I had been in the LBJ library reading letters their father wrote during his Presidency. The Johnson family had been a family I followed my entire life. Luci and Lynda are both gracious and charming. I was honored to meet them. 


Luci even pointed out the location of the Governor's Mansion. Imagine having a president's daughter being your tour guide! I must say I was honored and chuckled to myself thinking no one was going to believe my story! 

Every soldier we passed on our walk around the Capitol was greeted with a handshake and words of thankfulness and gratefulness for their service from Luci. She and Lynda's father  LBJ inherited a war, not by choice. The Johnson family is known for their support of Veterans and I witnessed them in action first hand.


Veterans were interviewed and asked to tell their stories. Each one has a unique story. Stories that need to be heard. Over 500,000 Texans served in Vietnam. The next time you see one, thank them and ask them to share their story.

Thank you Texas Veterans. Thank you all Veterans. Thank you for your service. Thank you for bringing my father back home to Texas. Thank you to all who have had a part in this memorial. Thank you to all who have served and continue to serve today. 

The Texas ground was broken this week and already the site has become a place of peace under the boughs of the mighty trees on our Texas Capitol soil. A place to rest, remember, reflect, to thank and to welcome home our heroes.

The monument is not yet in its place on the Capitol Grounds but for me, this monument and the events that occurred during the groundbreaking ceremonies have already given my family a bit more closure, my heart a lift and my soul a deeper love for Texas and her people. I look forward to the day of dedication for this tribute to all who served.



For more information on the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument: www.buildthemonument.org

9 comments:

  1. WOW !! Thank you for sharing your story.
    My brother in law Michael d'Agrella was killed in 1969. We had planned on going to Austin but our daughter came down with strep. My husband and I both go to Austin often and we will stop by. My brother in law is listed on the Galveston Memorial at Moody Gardens as well.
    Again THANK YOU for your story, it made me feel as if I was there.
    Gina Sotiropoulos/d'Agrella
    a very proud sister in law

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  2. God Bless Texas!

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  3. This is so incredibly beautiful. I came to this post via the TCVVM Facebook page. I too was there this week-end. I read names, including that of one of my "adopted" MIAs (who has since been returned). Ron Forrester is another of my "adoptees", and while I met Karoni four and a half years ago at a reunion for the Nam Phong veterans, I did not get to spend much time with her. She and I made up for it in Austin. I was able to meet more people with whom I had been in contact via Facebook, and had a wonderful, emotional, experience. I was born after the war. I have no family ties with any one of the 3,417 names read, yet I feel like I know many of them. The only thing I regret about this week-end is that I did not say enough "Thank Yous" to our veterans.

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  4. As a Vietnam combat veteran, although not from Texas, I want to thank everyone who had a part in this groundbreaking ceremony and in the development of the idea for the Monument. You folks got this right.

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  5. Thank you for this moving summary of the weekend's events. I was one of the volunteers who helped put it together and was honored to help honor our Vietnam Veterans and their families. May I recommend to all who are interested that you can keep track of the progress of the monument at our website: www.buildthemonument.org, and you can post stories of your service or your loved one's service there to help us build a Living Monument.

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  6. Thanks for the great post and story. My children could not attend due to school issues but this was a great article to let them read to understand the scope of this fabulous project. Don Dorsey is their uncle and their father is also a USMC Vietnam Vet, and sometimes even my children do not understand how important this memorial really is.

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  7. Thank you for sharing your experiences at the groundbreaking ceremony. Exceptionally well written.

    Gerald W. Lemons, Lieutenant Colonel, USA (Ret)
    RVN 70-71

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  8. Thank you for telling this story. Chris Crooker HM2 USN/USMC

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  9. What a wonderful tribute! I enjoyed meeting you and your mom, and I especially enjoyed reading this post. You truly captured the amazing spirit of the event. It was wonderful to see it through your eyes. It was my honor and pleasure to meet you and your family. All my best,
    Rachel Hedstrom
    Mrs. Texas International

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