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

July 2004
FEATURE
 

 

Distinction & Valor: Tennessee's Vietnam Veterans Memorial
 

BY MARC LEEPSON

One of the legacies of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in WashingtonThe Wallis that its long-awaited dedication in 1982 served to spur Vietnam veterans across the nation to take action to build state and local memorials honoring those who served in the nation's longest overseas war. Such was the case in Tennessee, where in 1983 the newly formed Tennessee Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program began raising funds to honor those from the Volunteer State who served in the Vietnam War.

The fruit of that labor came first on Veterans Day 1985 with the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Park in downtown Nashville's War Memorial Plaza just down the hill from the Tennessee State Capitol. The plaque dedicated that day reads: "From 1961 to 1975, more than 49,000 Tennesseans served in Southeast Asia. 6,000 were wounded and 1,289 whose names are inscribed here died. During America's longest war, they served with distinction and valor, but often without recognition. We, who cherish freedom, dedicate this memorial to their unselfish sacrifice."

The Tennessee Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated officially six months later, on Memorial Day 1986, in the park. The memorial consists of a highly polished black granite wall (the same India granite that was used on The Wall in Washington) engraved with the names, ranks, and branches of service of the Tennesseans who perished in the war. The memorial includes a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of three soldiers by Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire.

"It was all stimulated by the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, which focused on getting jobs and helping Vietnam veterans in other ways and encouraging states and cities to have monuments," Sam Bartholomew, a prominent Nashville lawyer who headed the first Tennessee VVLP organization, said. "We had 41 board members from across the state, including Al Gore, who was a congressman at the time, and we raised the money for the memorial."

After Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and the Tennessee Legislature set aside the space for the memorial, the VVLP group set about raising the $250,000 needed to build the project. "The fund-raising was not easy," Bartholomew said, "because a lot of people don't like giving to monuments; they like giving to something that's operational." Bartholomew is a 1966 West Point graduate who served with a 4th Armored Cav unit attached to the 25th Infantry Division based in Cu Chi and Tay Ninh on the Cambodian border in Vietnam in 1968-69.

The committee did not hold an open design competition for the statue. Instead, the group examined the work of several top Tennessee sculptors and chose LeQuire. A Nashville native, LeQuire studied sculpture at Vanderbilt University, in Rome, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. As a graduate student, he had submitted a design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Like Maya Lin's winning entry, Lequire's was a sunken memorial, but was rectangular in shape with interior and exterior walls covered with relief sculptures containing Vietnam War scenes interspersed with the names of the Vietnam War dead. Lequire, who was born in 1955, is best known for his monumental Athena statue that sits in Nashville's Parthenon and his other public life-sized bronze sculptures.

"The piece that I submitted to show the [Tennessee] committee my work, and one that I really wanted to do, was more like a traditional Pieta," LeQuire told us in an interview. "It was a wounded soldier being held by two other soldiers. They liked the style of my work and my other work, but they didn't like the Pieta idea. They thought it was defeatist. They didn't want anything that implied defeat." Instead, the committee came up with its own idea for slightly larger-than-life sculpture: three flak-jacketed soldiers of different ethnic backgrounds holding weapons in a grouping suggesting Vietnam War combat.

"They went to Ft. Campbell and had soldiers pose in the positions they wanted, took photographs and brought them to me, and asked me to create something more like the photograph." LeQuire said. "That's what I ended up doing. It was basically a design by committee." In addition to the photos, LeQuire had three local men pose in his studio and did his homework to get the things they carried right.

"I used a lot of photographs of veterans, and the Vietnam vets on my committee came by almost every week and looked at the piece while I was working on it in clay," he said. "The committee was very specific about the equipment and what went where. They brought me actual equipment to use. And I talked to a lot of vets about their experiences."

The result is a stirring, heroic statue that accurately depicts three fighting men in the Vietnam War. It is a starkly realistic portrait that also is symbolic, Bartholomew told us. The three men depicted in the memorial's sculpture, he said, "represent the three grand divisions of the state: East, Middle, and West."

 

   

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