The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August/September 2003
FEATURE ARTICLE
   
 

A Revolutionary Idea: Chapter 333's Watch Fires

BY JIM BELSHAW


Sixteen years ago, Vietnam veterans in Rockland County, New York, wanted to do something on Memorial Day to honor those who had died in service to the United States, but they didn't want a parade or long speeches or a gathering in a cemetery. They didn't want a pro forma ceremony that would quickly fade from memory.

Jerry Donnellan, who later would become VVA Chapter 333 president, said they wanted something different, something striking enough to touch the families of the fallen, other veterans, and everyone in the surrounding communities. They wanted something people would see and remember. They found it in the Revolutionary War. Sixteen years later, watch fires still burn every Memorial Day.

George Washington used watch fires to signal the cease fire that ended the Revolutionary War. Rockland County was rich in that history. The veterans put it to use. Using military regulations and specifications from the Revolutionary War, they built five fires--21 square feet at the base, 21 feet high at the peak. The fires were lit simultaneously at midnight and burned for 24 hours, the veterans keeping watch, changing shifts, finding themselves reminded of firebases on other mountaintops in another war.

At a distance, the fires' glow could be seen by thousands of people, but only the veterans kept watch at the sites. They scrawled the names of old Vietnam War battlefields on boards and posted them on trees. A roll call of the dead from local communities--116 names--was read.

When they decided on the watch fire program in 1987, the movie Platoon had captured the public's attention. The image of the Vietnam veteran was changing and they wanted to capitalize on it.

"That movie put us in a different light,'' Donnellan said. "We had gone from bums to almost super-heroes. We wanted to take advantage of the situation. Obviously, we were neither bums nor super-heroes. Now the pendulum has swung back to the center, and people take us as just people.''

Donnellan and others stood outside movie theaters and distributed leaflets with Vietnam veterans information and an invitation to a meeting, though at the time, VVA wasn't in the picture.

"We hadn't even thought of VVA,'' Donnellan said. "That was still down the road a bit.''

He thought they might get three or four people for the first meeting, but the number was much larger--enough to reassure him that the interest was there. Memorial Day was coming up. He had been reading about George Washington and suggested building watch fires, but to do it with little fanfare. He didn't want them expecting a big crowd, only to be disappointed if the response was less than expected.

They wrote to the governor and the park system. The superintendent of the park system, it turned out, was a Vietnam veteran. They had a friend. They needed to get fire departments to back them up. So many of the fire departments were full of veterans that it was not difficult finding support there. Then the National Guard got involved, sending Hueys to haul logs up to the top of the mountains.

"It brought a great deal of pride to everyone,'' said Donnellan, now director of the Rockland County Veterans Service Agency. "We set out to do more things not typical of veterans-- readings and lectures in schools, an art exhibit. We tried to be slightly different than the typical veterans group, and I think the public responded to it.''

As the watch-fire program continued to grow, community involvement grew with it. More and more "civilians'' became involved--tree companies, county employees, highway departments. All came forward to help build the fires.

"It's become more of a community effort and has drawn attention to veterans as a whole, although it started out primarily as something for Vietnam veterans,'' Donnellan said.

In the year that followed the first watch fires, local governments recognized that the fires had heightened interest in veterans affairs. As that interest grew, Donnellan said the veterans persuaded the county to give the VA space in a medical center and then spoke with the VA about supplying personnel for it.

"Without any cost to the VA, it could have a satellite clinic in the county,'' Donnellan said. "It did so well that six years ago we developed an even larger VA clinic in a private sector space. We went from 250 veterans from this county using outpatient services to 6,000. It was just a case of where you are--location, location, location. It's continued to grow.''

Frank Mahoney, the current chapter president, said the communities now have pledged to maintain the watch fire tradition in perpetuity.

``The last couple of years we brought some of the watch fires out of the mountains and into the towns,'' he said. ``The towns responded by giving us an area to have the fires in public parks. They've really supported us. Anything we need, they've more than graciously extended themselves to us.''

"As we get older,'' Mahoney said, "we start to see more people move up in the government and the private sector. A lot of them are Vietnam vets and Korean War vets. You get to know everybody. We have the Rockland County Veterans Coordinating Council, which comprises all the veterans organizations. We share information. We get along well. We have a very good mix of veterans and community involvement.''

When they lit the first fires at midnight on Memorial Day, there was little conversation until about 4 a.m. Newspaper stories talked about the "healing process.''

"I think it was genuine,'' Jerry Donnellan said. "You could talk. You knew certain questions wouldn't come with edges on them. You knew the people you talked to knew the lexicon, the vocabulary of the Vietnam War. You wouldn't have to stop to explain what you were talking about. When I came home from Vietnam, I figured I was the only Vietnam veteran around. We kept to ourselves. When we first put the chapter together in 1987, there were a bunch of us out there, successful people who in the ensuing 20 years after the war had made their mark. I think a lot of friendships were renewed.''

   

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